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by Susanna Kelley

Susanna KelleySeveral members of Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan's political staff have interfered with who can attend the lockup during the release of an "independent" report meant to advise the McGuinty Liberals on how the government could spend $124 million in taxpayer's funds more efficiently as it battles a $16 billion deficit.   

A Ministry of Finance official said Tuesday afternoon he had conferred with an official working for the Drummond Commission, and made the decision to deny specific media access to both the Commissioner, economist Don Drummond, and his report by barring them from a lockup scheduled for Wednesday.

Mr. Duncan's Director of Communications, Darcy McNeill, said he had conferred with Drummond Commission Secretariat Special Advisor Jenna LeBlanc over whether certain media would be given access to Mr. Drummond in a news conference he is giving at the publicly-owned MacDonald Block complex in Toronto Wednesday. 

Their decision was then confirmed by Mr. Duncan's Chief of Staff, Tim Shortill, who said he deferred to Mr. McNeill on it.

"I believe Darcy has discussed this" Mr. Shortill said in an email.  

"I defer to him on this." was refused access to the lockup despite appeals to the commission and numerous government officials over a period of five days. 

However, Mr. McNeill offered ONW an interview with Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan "any day of the week" in the same complex.

Asked in a later interview to confirm his earlier comments that he conferred with Ms. LeBlanc about ONW being barred from the lockup, Mr. McNeill asked "do you have it on tape?" and asked if the current interview was on the record. 

Asked numerous times if he was denying he had said originally he had conferred with Ms. LeBlanc, Mr. McNeill refused to answer the question. 

"If you print anything other than what (I'm saying now) on the record I'll say you aren't being straightforward" he said.

Mr. McNeill did say Ms. LeBlanc "is not used to dealing with media, this is her first time, she's a mid-level, at best, civil servant and she didn't know how to handle (the  reporter's) aggressive tone and so she called to see if this would be a problem and I said you should continue doing what you are doing."

"She felt that (the reporter was) browbeating her and would not take no for an answer."  

It is not known if any other media have been barred.

"Getting the minister's fingerprints all over the report is less than helpful," commented John Snobelen, former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister.

"They've slipped from some dumb into plumb dumb" he said.  

"After hyping this supposedly independent report for months, it's odd that the Ministry of Finance is hiding it from stakeholders and even some media outlets," said Elliott Anderson, Director of Strategic Planning for Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Both opposition parties say they have had trouble with the government over the release of the Commission's report.

Meanwhile, leaks of the report's recommendations have been appearing regularly in some media for months, citing "senior Liberal sources."

Mr. Drummond, a former Chief Economist for the TD Bank, was hired by the province at a salary of $1500 a day to come up with ways to deliver public services more efficiently. 

He was Assistant Deputy Minister to Paul Martin when the former federal finance minister made major spending cuts and downloaded services to the provinces in the 1990's to balance the federal budget.

Both Premier Dalton McGuinty and Mr. Duncan have warned nurses, teachers, doctors and other public servants that upcoming salary negotiations with the government will be tough.  

The Liberals are trying to pare down a deficit they ran up during the sharp economic downturn of 2008-2009.  Both the Premier and Mr. Duncan have said the spending was necessary to save jobs and help those who were struggling.

You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : February 15, 2012 NEWSROOM
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