OTTAWA – Tony Clement deliberately tried to hide his role in doling out federal G8 largesse to his riding by using his personal email account, opposition parties charged Tuesday.
The Treasury Board president’s personal emails are not subject to the Access to Information Act, which covers only federal government records, including ministerial email accounts.
The NDP has managed to uncover 101 pages worth of emails between Clement and municipal officials in his Parry Sound-Muskoka riding _ but only by using provincial freedom of information legislation to access municipal records.
The embarrassing email trail suggests Clement micromanaged the distribution of a controversial $50-million fund, set up ostensibly to showcase the riding as it hosted last year’s G8 summit.
It shows Clement scripted the public comments of municipal officials and personally intervened to ensure a bureaucratic review of spending wouldn’t delay federal cheques for so-called legacy infrastructure projects.
They also showed Clement was determined that police concerns would not impede $21 million in funding for a deluxe recreation centre in Huntsville _ which was to have been an international media centre but was never used by journalists covering the summit.
New Democrats and Liberals charged Tuesday that Clement deliberately used his personal email account to avoid public scrutiny of his activities.
“Well, it’s obvious he had something to hide,” said Liberal Leader Bob Rae.
“It’s obvious he didn’t want to leave an email trail behind… He was trying to cover his tracks.”
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said Clement further tried to cover up his role by using his constituency office, rather than his ministerial office, to collect and vet muncipal proposals for legacy infrastructure funding.
“He knew that none of this could be traceable so the auditor general would be kept completely in the dark.”
In a report released last June, Auditor General Sheila Fraser found that the Harper government kept Parliament in the dark when it created the G8 legacy fund. It diverted money from another fund that was supposed to be spent on relieving congestion at border crossings, without informing Parliament.
Fraser, who has since retired, also concluded that bureaucrats had been shut out of the process of setting funding criteria and selecting the projects to be funded.
However, the emails uncovered by the NDP have shown numerous federal bureaucrats were involved in closed-door meetings with municipal officials in the riding.
Access-to-Information expert David Statham said ministers using personal email accounts to conduct government business is not illegal. But it does look like “some fancy footwork to get around” freedom of information legislation.
He questioned what, if anything, can be done to close the loophole, pointing out that it’s sometimes difficult to separate personal from business emails. Moreover, Statham said public scrutiny of personal email accounts would raise privacy concerns.
“You can’t regulate it,” Statham said.
It’s clear from the NDP-obtained emails that Clement is friendly with Huntsville mayor Claude Doughty, whom he refers to as a “bud.” While the two frequently talked about the G8 legacy fund, the emails also contain dinner invitations and personal observations about other muncipal officials, one of whom Clement refers to as “an odd duck.”
In the Commons, the government batted away opposition questions about the G8 controversy, maintaining its pattern of letting others speak for Clement.
It stuck to the mantra that Canadians rejected this type of “muckraking” in last spring’s election and want politicians to focus on the economy and jobs.
“I would think the Liberal party, having run an entire (election) campaign, the worst in its history, on this issue and having been dropped so badly, would decide that now is probably not the time to keep talking about politics in this way,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who as infrastructure minister signed off on the G8 legacy projects, repeatedly insisted the issue “has been thoroughly aired” and that the auditor general “had access to all government information.”
Opposition MPs repeatedly tried to embarrass Clement into answering for himself. Liberal MP Ralph Goodale taunted that Clement’s silence “looks like the behaviour of a coward.”
Both Rae and Angus later said Clement must resign.
“I think Tony Clement has made himself a ridiculous figure. I think he has no credibility on this file,” said Angus.