WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister's secret, security-conscious method for working while at his vacation home in Costa Rica involves his wife's personal email account and her cellphone.
Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the province's freedom of information law show Pallister, who has repeatedly said he is always reachable while in the tropical country, was sought after by staff during a visit last December.
They reached out to his wife, Esther, through her personal Bell MTS email account while trying to set up a conference call with senior staff and Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen.
'Hope you're getting settled in Costa Rica!'
"Hey Esther — hope you're getting settled in Costa Rica! Olivia, Mike and Kelvin are hoping to have a call with the premier tomorrow afternoon sometime," reads part of an email from Pallister's special assistant, Colin Weeres.
"Is the best way to contact you via your cellphone or the landline?"
"Brian says he will call you tomorrow morning," came the reply from Esther Pallister.
There are other email exchanges between Esther Pallister and staff, some of which involve sensitive material.
A document obtained by the Opposition New Democrats shows a draft of this year's budget speech was emailed to Esther Pallister nine days before the budget was delivered. A legal opinion on one issue last September was also sent via her Bell MTS account. It's not clear what the issue was because the details have been withheld under the freedom-of-information law.
NDP Justice critic Andrew Swan said Wednesday the revelations call into question the premier's claims that he is easily accessible and works hard while away.
"It is very, very strange that a premier of a province would ask that draft budget documents and legal opinions be sent to a MTS account belonging to his spouse," Swan said Wednesday.
"It makes no sense at all to have his staff here in Manitoba ... try and play Battleship to try and find the premier."
Pallister's office rejected interview requests and instead provided a written statement that said new protocols require the premier and all staff to use government devices and email accounts when conducting government business.
It makes no sense at all to have his staff here in Manitoba ... try and play Battleship to try and find the premier.
"When this government took office in spring 2016, there was no information provided specific to communication of government business on mobile devices," Chisholm Pothier, Pallister's communications director, said in the statement.
"When questions arose about the premier's methods of communications, he asked that a review of security policies and guidelines be conducted. That review revealed a gap in policies and guidelines regarding the use of mobile devices for government business."
Pothier added no sensitive information was leaked before the new directive was issued.
"There was no harm done or threat to the security of government information or the people of Manitoba."
Security concerns about Costa Rica home
Pallister has been dogged by questions about his time in Costa Rica since the CBC revealed in 2016 that he had spent nearly one in five days in the country during his time as Opposition leader. He later told The Canadian Press he planned to spend between six and eight weeks a year at his vacation property while serving as premier, then walked that back to five weeks earlier this year.
After being elected premier last year, Pallister refused to reveal how he kept in touch with staff while away, citing security concerns. He would only say that he rarely uses email, prefers phone calls and does not charge taxpayers a dime for his communication costs while out of the country.
Pothier said Pallister will now use his government equipment and accounts.
"While he will use a government phone, he will still reimburse the province for its use while on vacation."