© Guardian photo
The CBC won an appealed of a decision of P.E.I.'s freedom of information and protection of privacy commissioner that would have kept secret the names of those who received money through the Provincial Nominee Program, also known as PNP
The P.E.I. government spent over $256,000 in legal fees trying to keep the list of companies that received PNP immigrant investor payments private.
The Guardian filed an access to information request asking for this figure last month after the list of Provincial Nominee Program recipient companies was finally released.
The Innovation Department released the information to The Guardian this week via routine disclosure. It shows costs incurred from 2008 to the present associated with Freedom of Information requests asking for the list of PNP companies — including lawyer, court, consultant and administrative fees — totals $256,203.
Opposition innovation critic Hal Perry said he believes spending this amount to keep the list of PNP recipients private was a misuse of taxpayers’ money.
“We want to know what did the government have to hide in going to the extent of hiding the information from the Island public?” he said.
“Islanders wanted to know and we were really concerned that this government was not upfront about their mismanagement of the Provincial Nominee Program, and those issues continue to arise.”
The list was first requested through Freedom of Information requests filed by several parties back in 2009.
The department at that time received legal advice saying it should notify the recipient companies, asking whether they would give their permission to have their names included in a list for release.
No one was made available for an interview from Innovation Tuesday, but an emailed statement from the department said the decision was made to withhold the list after receiving feedback from the PNP companies.
“Following consultation with hundreds of third parties, government upheld its statutory responsibility outlined in section 15.1 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act which states, ‘The head of a public body shall refuse to disclose personal information to an applicant if the disclosure would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy.’”
This was appealed to the privacy commissioner of the day, Judy Haldemann. In 2010, she upheld government’s decision to withhold the names of PNP businesses.
But the CBC appealed this ruling via a judicial review, arguing Haldemann erred on several points in her decision including the assumption harm would be incurred by the PNP businesses in being identified as beneficiaries of the program.
Supreme Court Justice Wayne Cheverie agreed with CBC.
“I find (Haldemann’s) decision to uphold IIDI’s refusal to disclose the corporate names indefensible upon the facts of law and therefore not reasonable,” Cheverie wrote in his decision.
The fact government’s arguments were ultimately were struck down by Canada’s highest court shows that the money spent fighting requests for the PNP list could have been put to better use, Perry said.
“Two-hundred and fifty-six thousand dollars is a huge amount of money,” he said.
“That money could have gone a long way in supporting the small and medium sized businesses here in P.E.I.”
Nonetheless, the department argues it had an obligation to follow the processes laid out in the Freedom of Information Act.
“The decision (to withhold the list of PNP companies) was appealed first to the FOIPP Commissioner, and then to the courts. These processes were followed as prescribed by law,” the department email stated.