Four sources with knowledge of the allegations said city manager Tracy Samra and her deputy Victor Mema, the city’s chief financial officer (CFO), ordered city officials to go against expert legal advice and withhold their card statements from a freedom of information (FOI) request filed last year.
The two staff members responsible for approving FOI responses at the time reported the alleged interference to BC’s information watchdog, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).
Under BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA), it is an offence to obstruct an official from carrying out their FOI work. A conviction carries a fine of up to $5,000.
One of the whistle blowers, former chief operating officer (COO) Brad McRae, was later fired for cause on Ms. Samra’s advice before he could meet with council to plead his case.
The other, city clerk and FOI head Sheila Gurrie, was the target of alleged threats uttered during an incident at city hall on Jan. 31 that led to RCMP arresting Ms. Samra at her home in the middle of the night.
Ms. Gurrie and Mr. McRae are both named among nine people who have “reasonable grounds to fear personal injury” in a peace bond application against Ms. Samra scheduled to be heard in court on May 1. This reporter is among the nine people.
It is understood that the OIPC has been investigating multiple allegations that senior figures at the city have been interfering in the FOI process in efforts to block embarrassing information being made public or to obtain information in violation of privacy restrictions.
An OIPC spokesperson said she could not comment yesterday on the matter.
At Monday’s city council meeting, Ms. Gurrie acknowledged in response to a question from councillor Sheryl Armstrong that there had been interference in the FOI process at the city.
“Any interference that has ever occurred has been reported through the appropriate channels,” Ms. Gurrie said.
Advice from ex-OIPC commissioner ignored
Last October, News Nanaimo requested two years of credit card statements for five senior managers. Initially, the city tried to delay responding to the request but was forced to respond when OIPC rejected the delay.
On Dec. 1, the city released card statements for three managers without redacting any transactions, but withheld the statements of Ms. Samra or Mr. Mema in their entirety.
The card statements of Ms. Samra and Mr. Mema are known to contain evidence of multiple violations of the city’s policies against charging personal expenses. Such transactions can be grounds for termination.
The released statements of the other three managers — Ms. Gurrie, Mr. McRae and human resources director John Van Horne — had no obvious personal transactions on them.
Now it has emerged that prior to denying access, the city obtained a legal opinion from David Loukidelis, QC, a foremost expert on FOI and privacy law who was BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner from 1999 to 2010.
Mr. Loukidelis advised the city that there were no grounds to deny access to the statements in their entirety and officials could only redact certain transactions.
However, Ms. Samra and Mr. Mema rejected the legal advice and ordered Ms. Gurrie and Mr. McRae to withhold the statements in their entirety knowing there were no grounds to do so.
Mr. McRae was previously not directly involved in FOI matters but was made joint FOI head “to punish” Ms. Gurrie, who Ms. Samra viewed as being unwilling to bend to her will, it is alleged.
Ms. Samra later told city council that she had obtained a legal opinion saying the statements could be legally withheld, but she never produced a copy of that opinion.
Meanwhile, Ms. Gurrie and Mr. McRae reported to the OIPC that they had been instructed to withhold the top two managers’ credit card statements against their better judgment and the advice of Mr. Mr. Loukidelis.
On Nov. 30, Ms. Samra informed Mr. McRae, who was on medical leave, that she would be recommending to council that they fire him for cause, ostensibly over cost overruns for the city’s garbage automation project. It is understood it was Mr. Mema and not Mr. McRae who had signed off on the cost overruns.
As an officer of the city, however, the former COO was entitled to an opportunity to be heard by council prior to any termination decision. A meeting of council to hear Mr. McRae was scheduled for mid-December, which ultimately would be postponed to Jan. 10 for medical reasons.
After News Nanaimo reported on Dec. 3 that the city was withholding the two top managers’ credit card statements, Ms. Samra took steps to deflect attention and make it appear that she was addressing gaps in the city’s policies against personal spending.
On Dec. 8, she ordered a news release to be issued saying she had “directed city staff to update the suite of employee expense policies to provide more detailed guidelines on eligible expenses and reporting requirements.”
However, existing city policies at the time that were obtained by News Nanaimo were clear on what expenses were allowed and the possible consequences for violations.
Ms. Samra had also already commissioned the city’s auditors KPMG to review expense reports of former senior managers going back 10 years to show that her and Mr. Mema’s personal charges were not unusual.
KPMG’s report has not been made public but multiple sources say it found nothing that compares to the personal spending of Mr. Mema or Ms. Samra.
On Jan. 10, council voted to terminate Mr. McRae for cause in his absence on Ms. Samra’s advice. It is understood that he had notified council that his doctor wanted him to wait another week before attending the hearing.
The vote was 5 to 4, with councillors Bill Bestwick, Bill Yoachim, Jim Kipp, Jerry Hong and Gord Fuller voting to terminate him for cause and no severance. Mr. McRae has since filed a complaint with BC’s Human Rights Tribunal seeking reinstatement.
Things fall apart
On Jan. 29, News Nanaimo reported that Ms. Samra had been secretly planning to leave the city and had been offered a job with the shíshálh Nation in Sechelt. She accepted the position the next evening.
However, on the night of Jan. 31, RCMP arrested Ms. Samra at her home on allegations of uttering threats during the incident earlier the day at city hall. It is understood her and Mr. Mema’s expenses are central to the incident.
Ms. Samra was released on Feb. 1 after agreeing to an RCMP undertaking not to have contact with nine people or be within 100 meters of city hall. The same day, the city initiated an internal human resources investigation into the incident.
Two days later, the city issued an unusual Saturday news release referring to the KPMG review. It claimed that for “more than a decade, the city has, in practice, permitted elected officials and staff to incur both business expenses and personal expenses on city-issued purchase cards and credit cards.”
The release was widely criticized by current and former staff and council members who believed they were being unfairly tarnished to excuse the personal spending of Ms. Samra and Mr. Mema.
The release was removed from the city’s website but staff were later forced to repost it after councillor Fuller, his brother Robert Fuller and council gadfly Tim McGrath complained that staff were censoring the public record and defying a council resolution.
On Feb. 9, the shíshálh Nation announced that it would no longer be hiring Ms. Samra following her arrest. The decision was said to be mutual.
On Mar. 1, council suspended Mr. Mema, but in a statement the next day said only that it had launched an investigation after hearing an “allegation of significant concern.”
News Nanaimo has previously disclosed that the allegation related to his personal spending for vacations and car expenses on a city credit card, and complaints about staff changes he was implementing in the finance department.
Questions put to Ms. Samra through her lawyer were not responded to by publication time. Mr. Mema has requested that he not be contacted for comment.
News Nanaimo is still in mediation with the city and the OIPC over the credit card statements.