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Secret Expense Claims

Background

A journalist made access requests to the MacKenzie Valley Land and Water Board (MVLWB) seeking copies of the expense claims and monthly government credit card bills for a former chairperson of the MVLWB. In response, the Board refused to disclose the requested records, pursuant to subsection 19(1) of the Access to Information Act, to protect the privacy of the former Board chairperson. The requester complained to the Information Commissioner.

Legal Issues

Do a public official’s expense claims and government credit card bills constitute the official’s personal information which may be exempted from the right of access under subsection 19(1) of the Act?

The Information Commissioner noted that this issue is not new. Indeed, most government institutions now post expense and travel claims of senior public officials on their websites. The reason for this level of openness is that the definition of "personal information" (which may be kept secret) contains an explicit exception for information about present or former public officials which relates to their position or functions (see paragraph 3(j) of the Privacy Act).

The MVLWB accepted the commissioner’s views and disclosed the requested records.

Lessons Learned

Public officials do not have as much privacy protection as do others. It is a "red flag" when a government institution justifies secrecy about the actions of its officials on the grounds of protecting their privacy. While a zone of privacy does remain for public officials, it is limited, and does not extend to records about their expense claims and use of government credit cards. 

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