Minister of Finance Tom Osborne has, to date, refused to release the amount of money paid to Steve Winter in compensation after the decision by the government in January to fire him without cause from his position at the head of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp. (NLC).
“There are privacy issues. I don’t think government ever provides the details of those amounts,” Osborne said when asked about severance and payment in lieu of notice, as reported this week.
The government did speak about Ed Martin’s compensation when he departed Nalcor Energy, but comments came after figures were leaked and brought to the government, as well as Martin’s contract — something not available in Winter’s case.
In other instances — for example, recent departures of executives at the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp. — compensation amounts were released in response to an access to information request.
The Telegram’s request regarding Winter stands. A new access to information request has been filed, explicitly asking for amounts paid out as part of the government’s decision to make a change at the top at the NLC.
The Sunshine List
The dollar amounts are expected to be released anyway, eventually, through the Sunshine List.
In June 2016, a news release from the provincial government titled “Moving forward on compensation disclosure” referred to upcoming legislation to create the annual list, and the need for having proactive disclosure by government when compensation reaches $100,000 a year or more.
“Our government respects the right of citizens to access to information on how public funds are used. This includes the disclosure of public sector employee compensation information, which is to be introduced and debated in our legislature,” former Finance Minister Cathy Bennett said at the time.
The related legislation — the Public Sector Compensation Transparency Act — was given royal assent in December 2016. While severance is not explicitly mentioned, the related regulations do address it, stating the various types of compensation to be disclosed.
It states, in addition to total compensation, the government shall specifically disclose: base salary, overtime pay, bonuses, shift premiums, retroactive salary, severance pay and “other compensation” for listed individuals.
For instance, the last annual disclosure report for the NLC, covering the period to the end of 2016, notes Winter received $8,000 under “other compensation,” relating to a vehicle allowance.
That same report includes a column for any severance payments.
Individuals in the public sector can apply against the release of information, but Winter’s severance and any other compensation afforded to him would be expected to be available in the Sunshine List disclosure.
Unfortunately, the disclosures cover calendar years, and given the timing of his dismissal, severance and other payments would be expected in the spring 2019 report.
Access to information
The next avenue, given the minister’s refusal, is through the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Information and Privacy Commissioner Donovan Molloy has already reviewed complaints on refusal to release severance amounts, at least at the municipal level.
In 2017, he twice issued findings (Report A-2017-027) on requests for “severance or other payments” for a named individual through the Town of Paradise. The town had refused to release the information. The commissioner recommended, both times, payment information be released. He said the payment amounts did not represent an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.
Requests relating to Winter’s departure filed to date by The Telegram sought both any contract on file and communications around his departure.
A request has now been filed to demand the province release Winter’s compensation, with the hopes it might be made available before 2019, and without having to challenge a response to the privacy commissioner and the courts.
An interview was not sought with Molloy at this time, given any response from the government might yet demand challenge. Any outcome from a challenge cannot be pre-supposed.
On Wednesday, Independent MHA Paul Lane contacted The Telegram and said he was filing a formal request for the information.
Lane spoke about disclosures through the Sunshine List and the figures being put out in public for individuals who would not have typically crossed the threshold for reporting, but who had received compensation after a significant demand for overtime or other reason — individuals in lesser positions than Winter. And he spoke about the public interest.
“I just think it’s terrible that we’re not putting this number out there,” Lane said, adding Winter deserves everything he is entitled to, but the public also deserves to know about money being paid out.