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

OTTAWA - Three watchdog groups want parliamentarians 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 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 actions were a "mistake."

And a year-long investigation by Canada's information commissioner concluded Togneri had inappropriately interfered with the release 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 Hind, head 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 Commons access committee is chaired by an opposition member, the NDP's Nathan Cullen, who was not immediately available for comment.

Togneri welcomed the RCMP decision this month for "clearing me of any wrongdoing," and called Legault's investigation of him "grandstanding." 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 political interference in access-to-information at Public Works, Foreign Affairs and National Defence. The reports are expected in the next year.

Dean Beeby reports for The Canadian Press.

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