08/30/2011 11:05 EDT | Updated 10/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Groups demand Commons probe of RCMP decision to drop access-to-info case

OTTAWA - Three watchdog groups are asking Parliament to find out why the RCMP dropped its probe of alleged political interference in the release of government information.

Newspapers Canada, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association issued a joint letter Tuesday asking a House of Commons committee to investigate the case of Sebastien Togneri.

In 2009, Togneri, a political aide to then-public works minister Christian Paradis, ordered a document withheld from a Canadian Press reporter who had requested it under the Access to Information Act.

The document, an annual report on the government's giant real-estate portfolio, was then retrieved from the Public Works mailroom shortly before it was to be sent out.

Togneri was later required to appear before the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, where he acknowledged his order to "unrelease" the document was a "mistake."

And a year-long investigation by Canada's information commissioner concluded Togneri had inappropriately interfered when he had no legal authority to do so.

Suzanne Legault recommended the government send the case to the RCMP to examine whether Togneri's actions broke Section 67.1 of the Access to Information Act, which provides for jail terms and penalties for interfering with the release of government information.

The RCMP was called in, but this month dropped their probe, saying any criminal investigation was "unwarranted."

"The RCMP decision to abandon this investigation is extremely troubling," John Hinds, president of Newspapers Canada, said in a release.

"It appears to leave people most likely to interfere with ATI (Access to Information) requests above the law, and that just cannot stand."

A spokesman for the taxpayers group called it a "critical situation."

"If they can't charge someone in a minister's office who has been found by the Information Commissioner to have sent an email telling officials to 'unrelease' documents for no reason, when would anyone ever be charged?" said Scott Hennig, communications director.

The RCMP's abandoned investigation is the second time the Mounties have declined to lay charges in a high-profile case involving Section 67.1. Last fall, officers decided no charges were warranted after a two-year investigation into the deliberate destruction of emails at the National Gallery of Canada.

Legault also found clear evidence in that case that public servants were counselled to destroy records.

No one has ever been charged under Section 67.1, which was added to the Act in 1999 after scandals in which defence and health records had been destroyed to avoid embarrassing revelations.

The Commons access committee is chaired by an opposition member, the NDP's Nathan Cullen. The 12-member committee, which has met only once in June, is dominated by seven Tory MPs.

"I can't imagine a more clear-cut case of contravening the Act," Cullen said in an interview from Smithers, B.C., adding the Togneri issue "stands a very good chance" of being added to the committee's fall agenda.

Cullen said the Act may need to be rewritten if Section 67.1 is proving to be unenforceable, and that the committee needs to hear from the information commissioner, who has herself raised concerns about the wording of the law.

Togneri welcomed the RCMP decision this month for "clearing me of any wrongdoing," and called Legault's investigation of him "grandstanding." He declined comment Tuesday on the letter to the committee.

Togneri left government in 2010, and was removed from the federal election campaign of a Tory candidate in Edmonton in April when his role there became public.

Legault has launched other investigations of alleged political interference in access-to-information at Public Works, Foreign Affairs and National Defence, based on specific allegations brought to her attention. The reports are expected over the next year.

Her office is also conducting a self-initiated investigation into systematic interference in the access-to-information process at eight major departments: National Defence, Public Safety, CIDA, the Privy Council Office, Health Canada, Heritage Canada, Natural Resources Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency. That report is expected sometime next year.