Withholding FOI requests: In the Private Sector, that's fraud

It was with enormous interest I read on the Globe’s website about a conservative Ministerial Aide “unrealeasing” a document requested by The Canadian Press through an Access to Information request (The Access to Information Act ensures that citizens can request information about the government’s activities).

A federal cabinet minister’s aide killed the release of a sensitive report requested under freedom-of-information in a case eerily similar to a notorious incident in the sponsorship scandal.

What I find fascinating is the neither the minister (now at Natural Resources Canada) or the aide have been asked to resign.

Let’s be abundantly clear, if this were the private sector and a CEO was caught deliberately withholding material information from a shareholder… that would constitute either fraud and/or a violation of whichever provincial securities laws he/she was bound by. Moreover, such a crime that could carry with it a prison sentence.

And yet here, in the most cavalier manner, one of the most basic trusts that ensure accountability in our system is violated with almost no repercussions.

The story does have its dark humour (and a embarrassingly feeble attempt at an excuse):

Mr. Paradis’s current communications director said Mr. Togneri’s intervention was to suggest the Access to Information section offer fewer pages to the requester without charge rather than the entire 137 pages for a fee of $27.40, which had already been paid.

“He went through and thought that a huge section of a very big report wasn’t relevant and that you should be given the option of paying to get it or get the (smaller) chapter” without charge, Margaux Stastny said in an interview. “No one can overrule Access officers.”

The options were never provided to the requester, however. Instead, the department simply sent the censored report and refunded the fee.

Yes, I too am always comforted to know that my government is thinking of me and trying to save me a few pennies by ensuring I don’t see information they know I need not waste my time on.

I, of course, have another solution for how the photo copying money could be saved. What about emailing a digital copy of the report? Of course Access to Information requests (called ATIP or FOI for those in the US) are always handed out in paper, just to ensure you can’t do anything too useful with them… oh and to help ensure that they are late in delivering them.

So while, in this case, the Minister’s staff has committed an enormous gaffe – one that should have (and yet probably won’t) political implications, it is also a window into a broader problem:

FOI = broken.

I belong to a generation that gets information in .3ms (length of a google search) if you take 80 days to get my request to me (and edit it/censor it), you are a bug I will route around. This isn’t just the end of accountability in government, this is the end of the relevancy of government.

6 thoughts on “Withholding FOI requests: In the Private Sector, that's fraud

  1. fatcitizen

    FWIW “FOI” is the American terminology. Here they're called “Access” or “ATIP” requests.Good post.

    Reply
  2. Peter

    I am not convinced the analogy to corporations holds, if only because corporations are not generally required to release to shareholders all manner of documents. They have much more narrowly defined requirements. But anyway, the point is that there are broader requirements for the government and they were circumvented in this case. There's not need to analogize this to a corporate environment. PJL

    Reply
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  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Withholding FOI requests: In the Private Sector, that’s fraud | eaves.ca -- Topsy.com

  5. JDrolet

    My everyday. Electronic files would be obvious and you are right on on the why it is not used. The question is more what to do so that the right thing is done.

    Reply
  6. JDrolet

    My everyday. Electronic files would be obvious and you are right on on the why it is not used. The question is more what to do so that the right thing is done.

    Reply

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