26 April 2016

Ring access ruling blames wrong culprit #nlpoli

To understand why access commissioner Ed Ring's ruling issued last Monday was troubling, you have to know some back story.

Ring was ruling in an investigation over an access request for two reports that should be in the Premier's Office.  An access request for copies of the reports got the reply that the office doesn't have them.  The actual response used the bureaucratic phrase "no responsive records."

Whoever went looking for the records appealed to Ring, Ring's office investigated, and then the report came out.  Ring chastised the Premier's Office for not keeping better track of its stuff.  In essence, he laid the blame for the missing files on the current crowd in the office.

That's wrong.

The blame in this case rests squarely on the shoulders of former Premier Danny Williams. Williams asked former Conservative cabinet minister and Supreme Court justice Bill Marshall to conduct two reviews into the province's justice department.  One was a review of the section of the department that policed the province's fish and wildlife under provincial jurisdiction.

The other was supposed to be a review of the Crown prosecution service. That one was especially important since the motive behind it was in a recommendation from the inquiry into wrongful convictions conducted by the late justice Antonio Lamer.

Just to make this story all the more interesting, the Lamer inquiry review was one we heard about because the justice minister at the time issued a news release in June 2006 announcing it.  We found out about the other one when questions came in 2009 in the House of Assembly from the justice minister under the administration that had appointed Lamer to go looking at the convictions.

Three years later.

No reports.

Ring recounts efforts by the current crowd to local a copy of the report within the Confederation Building. They turned up a preliminary version of one of them but no sign of a final report itself. He says that's all fine but concludes the government has a copy of the report that they could not find and had a duty to track one down as part of their duty to assist the complainant under the Act.

At no point does Ring criticise the previous administrations for failing to keep control of the record, for allowing Williams - as it seems - for removing the record from the office, or anything that in any way fixes responsibility for the long record of unaccountability on the people who actually perpetrated it.

What is more, Ring focuses on the inland fish and wildlife report but makes no mention of the Lamer report.  It is related, as even a cursory internet search would reveal and Ring has the capacity to offer observations on the wider implications of the matter even though the appeal dealt with one report only. You see, the Lamer report appears not to exist at all.  There is no sign it was ever completed, let alone exist in a draft form that was  - apparently - heavily redacted at one point.

That is significant for two reasons.  Firstly, it is not the only time Ring has sided with the former administration on questions of keeping secret what the law said ought to be disclosed.  In assessing a request for copies of emails that the Premier's Office did not wish to disclose, Ring accepted an unsubstantiated claim that the cost of compiling the request was onerous and therefore the Premier's Office was right to simple refuse to consider the request. In another, more blatantly ridiculous example,  Ring sided with the Premier's Office in their demand for thousands of dollars of payment to disclose copies of public speeches delivered by Danny Williams.

Secondly, and perhaps of greater concern, Ring has a long, personal relationship with the former Premier. That's chiefly how he got his appointment in the first place.  Ring did not recuse himself from any of these decisions about the Premier's Office despite having a blatant conflict of interest.

That his decisions in these three cited examples unduly favoured the former Premier is an indication, on the face of it, that the conflict is real and that the public interest suffered in the process.  it is one thing to insist that the Premier's Office had a duty to spend money tracking down a report that was - quite clearly - nowhere in the government's control. It is quite another to omit relevant detail that would have the effect of shielding others from far more significant actions or failures.

In the interest of full disclosure,  your humble e-scribbler has known Ed Ring for 25 years. It is painful to make this criticism in light of that.  But it is only by knowing Ring personally for that long that one can see the extent to which the rulings in these three cases are so wildly out of character. The only thing the three examples have in common is the individual intimately involved in each is someone with whom Ring has a long-standing personal connection. it is hard to reach any other conclusion but that his usual sound judgement has been impaired.

Ring should have refused to issue the report in his name and should have removed himself from any discussion related to it.

In the meantime, the government does need to find out what happened with the Lamer report.  If it hasn't been done for some reason,  attorney general Andrew Parsons might add that to his lengthy to-do list.  There are plenty of messes to clean up.