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Trying To Bust Through B.C. Ministry of Health's Wall of Secrecy

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If you've ever had a bad first day on the job, you've got to feel for B.C.'s new health minister, Margaret MacDiarmid.

On Sept. 6, no sooner had Minister MacDiarmid been sworn into her new post than she was rushed into a press conference to announce that her ministry had called in the Mounties to "investigate allegations of inappropriate conduct, contracting and data-management practices involving ministry employees and drug researchers."

Few details about the nature of those allegations have emerged since the story broke. Even with the very public firing of several ministry employees -- some relatively high-ranking -- control over information has been extremely tight.

Several months before the scandal broke, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) received anonymous tips regarding possible improper (and troubling) data management practices at the Ministry of Health, particularly with respect to data sharing agreements between government and certain researchers and organizations.

At the time, they were only hints and allegations that we were unable to confirm. So on Aug. 2 of this year, we filed a FOI request with the Ministry of Health, requesting copies of various data sharing and/or other agreements hammered out by the Ministry between Jan. 1, 2011 and the date of our request.

We also asked for internal correspondence pertaining to those agreements, and any emails, memos, or notices sent to ministry staff by the assistant deputy minister of the IT division regarding policy changes around the release of data to researchers. None of what we asked for pertained to any kind of investigation for the simple reason that, at the beginning of August, we had no idea there was an investigation going on.

On Sept. 17, though, the ministry slammed the door shut.

Citing a whole range of exceptions from legal privilege to law enforcement to personal privacy, the ministry refused to release any of the requested records. This, despite the fact that our request should have little or nothing to do with lawyers or police! An RCMP investigation shouldn't mean that every record held by the ministry is automatically off-limits to FOI requests.

The data sharing agreements we asked for, after all, are government contracts. Thanks to a number of recent precedents (including FIPA's successful eight-year legal battle with the B.C. government for the full disclosure of its $300 million contract with IBM), the province has said it is giving up on trying to keep such contracts secret.

So why the clamp down? The non-disclosure exemption relating to law enforcement requires the government to show how releasing information would harm an investigation or other law enforcement activity. But in this case, the data sharing agreements we requested were signed well before this breach and certainly before the RCMP investigation began. So where is the harm?

That's why FIPA has responded to the ministry's blanket refusal with a complaint to B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner. As always, we'll let you know what happens.