Trustees tampered with FOI request for expense reports, emails suggest
Freedom of information officer Maria Mavroyannis was alarmed by the â€œinterferenceâ€ she experienced in trying to release trustee expense documents .
Toronto trustees and senior staff interfered and tampered with documents related to trustee expenses requested by the Toronto Star, say emails sent by the boardâ€™s own freedom of information officer.
Maria Mavroyannis, a lawyer herself, was so concerned by the â€œclear interference in my ability to carry out the FOI request responsiblyâ€ that her emails say she sought outside legal help to ensure â€œwe have discharged our duties responsiblyâ€ given the â€œmisinformation being provided â€¦ and given evident trustee tampering.â€
The Star obtained these emails following a freedom of information request, or FOI, to the Toronto District School Board seeking copies of correspondence between Mavroyannis, the boardâ€™s executive officer of governance, and director of education Donna Quan.
Much of the document released to the Star was blacked out, including the identity of the trustees and board staff. The Star is appealing the decision to censor the names and will, via an appeal, ask Ontarioâ€™s privacy commissionerâ€™s office to investigate alleged tampering.
Quan said in an email to the Star that â€œfollowing recent (board) audits, stronger processes for trustee expenses and freedom of information requests have been put in place over the last year and we have focused on staff training and understanding of both.
â€œI am confident that these processes have been followed.â€
The original FOI request for the audit, which documented questionable spending by trustees including a trip to Israel and billing taxpayers for overnight stays at a downtown Toronto hotel during a conference, created turmoil behind the scenes at the board, the emails show.
â€œI am seriously concerned about the integrity of the FOI process given the sudden confusion and misinformation being provided â€¦ and given evident trustee tampering â€¦ the version (of the audit) below is entirely inconsistent with the discussions we have had and deliberately obfuscates what information has been changed in the reports and undermines the credibility on the completeness of the information being provided to requestors,â€ said an August email sent by Mavroyannis.
Michel Drapeau, a lawyer, professor and author of several works on information requests, said â€œif ever there has been a â€˜smoking gunâ€™ in an (FOI) request records, you found it â€¦ The exchange of records illustrate better than anything I have seen in the recent past about the increasing level of â€˜impotenceâ€™ of the FOI process which is victim to the open defiance, self-importance and arrogance of individuals who place their interests ahead of the public interest and their fiduciary duties,â€ he said.
The â€œvery obvious and repeated attempts to obfuscate and frustrate the â€˜right to knowâ€™ of the public â€¦ goes totally against the accepted Canadian-wide concept of the rule of law.â€
He praised Mavroyannis, saying â€œshe clearly comes across as a true and honest public servant doing her best to uphold the law (and) provide a â€˜serviceâ€™ to the public.â€
Ottawa University professor Amir Attaran, an expert in FOI requests who suggested asking the privacy commissioner to investigate, said that if tampering is confirmed, any staff involved should be fired.
Mavroyannis, in an email to one individual whose name was blacked out, said that â€œat the Tuesday meeting this week, you indicated that you had made changes to â€¦(the expense audit) based upon discussionsâ€ with someone whose name is also blacked out.
â€œYesterday at the meeting with the director, you indicated that there was yet another version of the trustee report containing changes, and there were many more changes to be made.â€
Another email adds: â€œWe cannot alter files that are the subject of an FOI. I have repeatedly said that. This constant flip-flopping detracts from the credibility of the integrity of the information being provided, and the independence of the FOI process â€¦ this process should not be interfered with â€¦â€
She went on to say that â€œthroughout this file, I have seen trustees and staff discuss the information to be provided, and provide opinion for matters for which they are not responsible. There has been clear interference in my ability to carry out the FOI request responsibly.â€
Drapeau said trustees should not have been told about the FOI expense audit request at all, and that trustees cannot ask to â€œcorrect a record.â€
â€œThis is tampering with a record,â€ he added. â€œIf you need to correct a record you produce a new version of a record and leave the original safe and intact.â€
Mavroyannisâ€™ emails refer to at least three versions.
While the freedom of information act doesnâ€™t specifically deal with tampering or destruction of records, Drapeau said â€œit is an offence to obstruct the commissioner during its investigation of a complaint.â€
The unredacted portions of the emails do not name any staff or trustees who are alleged to have tampered with or interfered with the FOI process.
Chair Mari Rutka said trustees did discuss the FOI request for the audit report, but would not say when or if it was during a private meeting. She said they have been seeking more â€œclarityâ€ around the FOI process.
â€œI think one of the concerns that trustees had around the information thatâ€™s already come out is that the context of it be explained,â€ she said. â€œThe initial documents that went out to the Star were draft documents that contained errors, and contained items that were flaggedâ€ and trustees were concerned their explanations for those items would not be included.
Trustee Shelley Laskin said her portion of the expense audit, released to the Star and CTV, mistakenly contained censored information and that she did not ask staff, at any time, to do such censoring.
She said she did, however, ask which version of the report would be released, given sheâ€™d seen two last April, which was two months before the Starâ€™s FOI request was submitted.
â€œDid I seek clarification of what would be released? Absolutely. Did I question the release of working documents which can be exempt? Absolutely. Were there a series of emails from me to staff to clarify which version of the working papers would be released. Absolutely.â€
Laskin, who is familiar with the FOI process from her previous job with an Ontario government ministry, said most trustees are not aware of the process and need to be better informed about their obligations under the law.
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