Ensuring productive FOI requests often requires advance reporting
A seemingly simple Freedom of Information request rocked the Alberta government last week, triggering one firing, another resignation and an internal investigation. CBC's Charles Rusnell, an award-winning investigative reporter and producer, explains how he broke the story.
By Charles Rusnell
Within minutes of beginning to skim through the expense-claim records of a senior health services executive I had recently received through Freedom of Information, I knew I had an important story.
But then, I had a good idea of the newsworthiness of those records before I filed the request months earlier.
That is because a long-time source had told me that Allaudin Merali, Alberta Health Service’s chief financial officer, had filed outrageous expense claims while he was in the same position with Capital Health, the regional health authority for the Edmonton region before it was melded into AHS, the giant authority that now operates Alberta’s health care system.
I didn’t know exactly what expenses Merali had claimed, but I did know that my once highly-placed source would have direct knowledge of them, which would greatly improve the odds of my request producing newsworthy information.
It was definitely newsworthy. Even before we could publish and broadcast all our stories, the Alberta government fired Merali, acknowledging that CBC’s FOI request had made it aware of nearly $350,000 in questionable expense claims. Those claims included a $1,600 dinner tab and a $2,300 claim for the installation of a cell phone in his Mercedes Benz car.
The next day, AHS board member Sheila Weatherill resigned. She had been chief executive officer of Capital Health and had signed off on Merali’s expenses.
The health minister called in the auditor general to conduct a forensic audit. Another internal investigation is also underway.
A simple FOI request had cost two jobs, sparked two investigations and driven the province’s news agenda for days. But it wasn’t just a chance request.
Like many journalists, I once employed a scatter-gun approach to FOI: file dozens of requests and hope something turns up. I still make the odd request on a hunch, but most are based on solid information gleaned from sources, tips or leaked documents.
I actively seek information from confidential sources that can guide my requests and increase the chances of producing newsworthy information. Put another way, if a source, for various reasons, can’t speak on the record, I ask them to provide information I can use to craft FOI requests that are focused both in terms of the information sought, and the time frame.
But you might ask: how did I find this particular source and why would he be prepared to help me? All reporters – not only investigative reporters – should actively work to cultivate long-term relationships with sources. It is critical to consistently producing original stories, which is what separates good reporters from the merely competent.
Back in 2007, I produced stories about how Merali had overstated Capital Health’s liabilities in its annual financial statements. Organizations sometimes overstate their liabilities to reduce or eliminate their surpluses, in order to obtain more funding from, in this case, the Alberta government.
Merali had overstated Capital Health’s liabilities three years in a row, despite Capital Health being privately warned by Alberta’s auditor general that it was not an accepted auditing practice.[node:ad]
The liability stories were the culmination of another tip, from another source. But when they ran back in 2007, I got a call from someone within Capital Health who was pleased to see this troubling practice had been uncovered.
I stayed in touch with this person, occasionally calling for information about how the organization operated in a certain area. Understanding how organizations work is critical to informed, focused reporting.
We also chatted in 2009 when the media in Ontario revealed that Merali, as a $2,750- dollar-a-day consultant to EHealth Ontario, had claimed such items as tea and a muffin and pop.
When I learned Merali had been recently hired as Alberta Health’s chief financial officer, I dug up some notes from a conversation I had had with my source when he retired from Capital Health a few years ago. There was a passing reference to Merali’s expense claims.
I called up my old source and told him about Merali’s recent hiring. My source was outraged and told me, in more detail, about Merali’s expense claims.
The FOI went in and after a few months of wrangling over fees, the records were produced and set off a firestorm that cost Merali and Weatherill their jobs.
It also caused a flood of tips to pour in, which have produced yet more FOI requests, and will also, hopefully, in the future, produce more accountability stories.
A couple final tips.
When I file FOI requests, I ask for all records, as defined by Section 1(q) of Alberta’s FOI Act. I assume every provincial FOI Act has the equivalent of Alberta`s Section 1(q). It provides an extensive, encompassing definition of records that includes every form of kept information including emails, phone messages, and electronic databases.
By specifically referring to this section, it makes it difficult for the processors of my FOI request to selectively choose what is released.
And finally, in many cases, I file an FOI request for how they processed my original FOI request. It is one way to determine if there was political interference in the request. And it almost always produces information for another story. Last year, one such request revealed the fact that a minister had deleted every email and shredded every document – in contravention of the government`s own retention policies – when he left office.
Such follow-up requests also almost always yield more information about how a government department is organized and who holds which positions of authority. This can be critical information when dealing with other future sources within that department.
Charles Rusnell is an award-winning investigative reporter and producer with CBC Edmonton and has been making FOI requests since 1984.