On Jan. 12, a series of opinion pieces penned by Fantino appeared on the Canadian International Development Agency website. Two of them included political content, with the titles "Dear NDP: CIDA does not need your economic advice," and "Liberals make promises, Conservatives get results."
A few days later, when media and the opposition began to question the propriety of putting partisan material on a federal government website, the letters were quickly taken down.
Fantino's spokespeople blamed bureaucrats at the time, suggesting they posted the partisan letters by mistake after being asked to put some of his opinion pieces online.
It stuck to that position this week.
"CIDA was asked to add appropriate web content," Meagan Murdoch said in an emailed statement that echoed her Jan. 15 reaction. "Two items were posted by officials in error. CIDA was asked to remove them immediately and they did."
But emails released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show that Jo-Ann Purcell, a CIDA employee who worked directly inside Fantino's office, was in the loop on the web content. Purcell acted as the main liaison between the department and the minister.
"Can you let me know what format/section of CIDA's website these will be posted on? If possible, can you send a mock-up before posting all of them?" Purcell, then the senior departmental assistant in the minister's office, asked in a Jan. 3 email with the subject line "Ministerial editorials."
Part of that Purcell's email was withheld under the Access to Information Act because it apparently contained advice, recommendations, consultations and/or deliberations with officials or the minister. An email that followed directly afterward was also withheld for the same reasons.
In the documents, bureaucrats told Purcell that the nine selected articles would have to go through a translation process. The minister's office was then asked which order to put the articles in: "Would OMINE (the minister's office) have a preference?"
On the day they went online, Jan. 12, Purcell wrote to the president of CIDA and other senior officials telling them "all" the material had been posted.
"OMINE (minister's office) aware," Purcell wrote, pasting links to the website.
The Canadian Press put a series of questions to CIDA this week about whether bureaucrats were indeed to blame for posting the offending letters, as Fantino's office maintains.
The agency did not address that key issue of culpability.
"The minister's office was not asked to approve the selection of op-eds before they were posted," reads a response emailed Wednesday.
"Upon becoming aware of the error, CIDA was asked by the minister's office to immediately remove the letters."
Three days after the letters went live on the CIDA website in January, when media began questioning the letters on Twitter and calling the agency, Purcell told confused bureaucrats to remove all the content from the web.
Officials from the Treasury Board Secretariat, which oversees the rules on non-partisan communications in the government, immediately got involved. Bureaucrats from the Privy Council Office — the prime minister's department — had their hands in the communications response to media outlets.
And there seemed to be some concern in the Privy Council Office about just how much the minister's office knew.
"We also need the email that was sent to the minister's office advising them of this posting on Saturday," wrote one PCO official.
A copy of Purcell's redacted email of Jan. 3 was forwarded to the Privy Council in response.
Liberal MP John McKay, who was criticized in one of the Fantino letters, wrote in January to Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters to complain about the matter. Wouters did not respond for nearly four months, then told McKay that the letter was "included in error" on the website without specifically blaming bureaucrats.
"My assessment of what really happened is that Fantino's political operatives wrote these letters and told the bureaucrat to post them," McKay said Wednesday.
"Whether she did or didn't put up any fuss will never be known by us, but she did what she was told what to do."
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