Department should release info on talks: commissioner

Rob Antle
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Transparency

A two-year investigation by the province's information commissioner recommends the release of many documents dealing with failed efforts to attract two businesses to Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Telegram lodged a complaint with the commissioner's office in 2008, after the Department of Business flatly rejected the newspaper's request for information.

A two-year investigation by the province's information commissioner recommends the release of many documents dealing with failed efforts to attract two businesses to Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Telegram lodged a complaint with the commissioner's office in 2008, after the Department of Business flatly rejected the newspaper's request for information.

By law, the commissioner has no power to compel the government to do anything. Only the province's Supreme Court can do so.

The department has 15 days to decide how to respond.

The companies involved also don't want the information released, according to the commissioner's report. Neither does an unnamed consultant who was part of the process. They can all appeal to have the records withheld.

The Department of Business would only say it will review and address the commissioner's findings within the 15-day time limit.

Two years ago, The Telegram reported that Prudential Consulting Inc. (PCI) had opted against an expansion plan that could have created about 150 jobs in central Newfoundland.

Prudential - a Canadian company with offices in the U.S., U.K. and India - declined to say why, steering inquiries back to the Department of Business.

"Prudential Consulting Inc. was engaged in conducting due diligence for a large expansion project in Newfoundland and Labrador for an extended period of time," Niharika Sharma, Prudential's manager of marketing and communications, wrote in a May 2008 e-mail to The Telegram.

"However, PCI decided to not proceed with this project that was to take place in Grand Falls-Windsor."

Weeks earlier, The Telegram had reported that the Department of Business had yet to spend a dime from a highly-touted $32-million business attraction fund.

Then-minister Paul Oram said at the time that the lack of action was proof that the government's tough background checks were working.

Oram said his department had turned down two potential deals at the last minute, when due diligence turned up problems that led the province to back away.

One of those potential deals, apparently, was with Prudential.

Prudential officials steered Telegram inquiries in 2008 to Ray Dillon, the deputy minister of the Business Department.

"I believe the minister has made public comments recently about us or a company like us and may wish to provide further details on the due diligence that was conducted and the information that was sought," Sharma wrote at the time. "However, PCI is truly disappointed with the outcome of this project."

Prudential went on to ink job-creation deals in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

The company did not respond to e-mail requests Friday.

According to the recent commissioner's report, the department takes the stand that disclosure of any information about any talks can be harmful.

"It is the policy of the Department of Business to neither confirm nor deny publicly that it is or was in negotiations with a company unless those negotiations were successful," the government said in its submission to investigators.

But commissioner Ed Ring said that policy was "unworkable and contrary to the spirit and objects" of the open-records law.

The department cited a variety of reasons why it opted for a blanket rejection of The Telegram's request - harming the government's economic or financial interests, harming the business interests of a third party, and harming intergovernmental affairs or negotiations.

In his report, Ring largely rejected those arguments.

The commissioner acknowledged that some information in the documents could legitimately be withheld under the law.

But he decided that the majority of it should be released.

"(T)he department has provided virtually no evidence linking the disclosure of any of the different kinds of information in the responsive record to any of the different types of harm alleged, or even demonstrating that factual circumstances exist that could lead to the harm alleged," Ring wrote in his report.

Even though he felt the government did not prove its case, Ring indicated there were two-and-a-half pages of e-mails so potentially damaging they should be withheld anyway.

"Because of the nature of the information it is not possible for me to describe it in detail without disclosing it," Ring wrote.

"Suffice it to say that the record itself contains clear and convincing evidence that points directly to the likelihood of injury to the interests of the department and the government if this particular information were to be disclosed."

rantle@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Prudential, Department of Business, The Telegram Supreme Court

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, U.S., U.K. India Grand Falls-Windsor New Brunswick Nova Scotia

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