Dispute over secret agenda books has cost taxpayers $568,000 so far: Information watchdog, government fighting over whether PM's books can be made public

By Jim Bronskill, Ottawa Citizen, 10 July 2002



A dispute over the federal information watchdog's right to examine Prime Minister Jean Chretien's agenda books and notes from high-level Defence Department meetings has cost taxpayers more than half a million dollars in legal bills.

Newly obtained documents show approximately $568,000 in work had been done through early last month on the case, which is still before the courts, by lawyers for the federal government and Information Commissioner John Reid.

The long-running battle over the prime minister's secret agenda books and the defence notes pits the information commissioner's powers of investigation under the Access to Information Act against the entitlement of government officials to shield certain aspects of their affairs from scrutiny.

Since assuming the commissioner's post four years ago, Mr. Reid has often tangled with the Liberal government about interpretations of the access act and his right to probe allegations of non- compliance with the law.

The government has defended its actions as honest attempts to draw the line between public and private information.

Most of the records on the legal work provided to the Citizen were obtained through Access to Information Act requests to federal departments by Stanley Tromp, research director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. Additional data were supplied to Mr. Tromp by the information commissioner's office.

The documents indicate that between September 2000 and December 2001, the government paid at least $337,000 to law firm Borden Ladner Gervais for work on the file. The figure, derived from records released by the Justice Department and the Privy Council Office, doesn't include the goods and services tax.

Additional calculations indicate Justice Department lawyers of varying levels of seniority performed $27,953 worth of work, or more than 400 hours, through last October.

The information commissioner's office, meanwhile, paid two law firms -- Ruby Edwardh and Langlois Gaudreau -- a total of $142,983 for work on the file between November 2000 and early last month. Mr. Reid's office estimates its in-house counsel put an additional 1,400 hours into the case, valued at $59,900 based on the relevant pay scale.

The actual total cost of the legal work on the case is almost certainly higher than $568,000, as several related actions are still being played out in the courts.

The case of Mr. Chretien's agendas began with an access request from an unidentified individual for five years' worth of Mr. Chretien's books, believed to include detailed accounts of the prime minister's activities -- from caucus meetings to personal appointments.

The Prime Minister's Office has appealed a March 2001 decision of the Federal Court of Appeal that said Mr. Reid, an ombudsman for users of the access law, had the right to see the documents and interview officials as part of his investigation of two complaints.

The first complaint concerned Mr. Chretien's agendas, while the second involved a request by Citizen reporter David Pugliese for information about meetings between then-defence minister Art Eggleton, senior staff, the deputy minister and the chief of defence staff.

The government argues the records in both cases fall outside the ambit of the act and, therefore, Mr. Reid should not legally be permitted to review them.

Mr. Reid has stressed he has yet to determine if the agendas are subject to the right of access, nor has he recommended that they be disclosed, in whole or in part. The Supreme Court's ruling in the case is expected later this year.

In the interim, there have been numerous subsidiary filings in Federal Court related to the main matters, proceedings that account for a significant portion of the legal bills.

The Supreme Court will rule tomorrow in a separate case involving federal employees that will help better define the thorny issue of cabinet secrecy.