Manitoba ombudsman will investigate opposition cover-up accusation

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government shot down an opposition demand for an inquiry into the actions of Premier Greg Selinger and one of his former cabinet ministers Friday, but the controversy remained far from over.

New Democrat legislature members unanimously voted against a Tory motion to have a committee investigate Selinger and former immigration minister Christine Melnick over a political debate two years ago.

Melnick initially denied ordering civil servants, who are supposed to be apolitical, to help round up immigrants and immigrant agency workers for an April 19 legislature debate in which she criticized a federal government takeover of some immigration programs.

Several bureaucrats were involved in getting hundreds of people into the public gallery for the show of support.

The provincial ombudsman revealed last December that Melnick had in fact directed her bureaucrats to invite people. Melnick apologized and said she had forgotten giving the order due to diabetes-induced memory loss. But she insisted she was acting under the direction of the premier and was told to take the blame to protect him.

Selinger denied the accusation and ousted Melnick from caucus in February.

Tory house Leader Kelvin Goertzen told the legislature Thursday only an inquiry — with the premier and others testifying under oath — could determine who is telling the truth. He said question period exchanges have been fruitless.

"We could ask the premier or the attorney general or any member of the government ... the question over and over about what they knew, but they're simply not going to answer."

Government house leader Andrew Swan left the blame with Melnick, as the premier has done.

"(Melnick) did mislead this house. She says it was inadvertent. There's no evidence to suggest otherwise."

Melnick's use of bureaucrats was criticized by the ombudsman, who said it brought into question the non-partisan nature of the civil service.

While there will be no legislature inquiry, the NDP will face another probe related to the controversy. Ombudsman Mel Holley said Thursday he is launching a new investigation — this one over an accusation by the Tories that the government tried to cover up Melnick's involvement by concealing an email.

The Tories applied under the province's freedom of information law for documents related to the 2012 immigration debate, and were not given the only piece of the paper trail at the time that linked Melnick to the use of civil servants — an email sent by one bureaucrat that said invitations were being sent "as requested by the minister."

That email was uncovered later by the ombudsman. The Tories said it is proof the government violated freedom of information rules and hid the truth, but Swan said the email was simply overlooked.

"That email was inadvertently missed in the original search, and the deputy minister (of immigration) also made it clear that this was an error made at the department level without any political considerations."

The government has repeatedly tried to put the Melnick controversy to bed, but has faced more questions each time new information has arisen, such as:

— While the government initially said the email invitations were sent by one bureaucrat, documents obtained by The Canadian Press in 2012 showed several were involved.

— Premier Greg Selinger revealed in December 2013 that he knew Melnick has misled the legislature for almost 18 months, but did not go public until the ombudsman finished his investigation.

— A document recently obtained by the Tories showed at least one civil servant thought "it might not be a good idea" to have the assistant deputy minister's name on the invitations that were issued to immigrants and immigrant agency workers.

There was no indication Thursday as to how long the ombudsman's new investigation may take.