Journalist Ken Foxe, former Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and PR advisor Terry Prone, of the Communications Clinic
The Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall yesterday quashed a previous decision by the Department of Justice to refuse to release correspondence sent between the former Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and her officials and Terry Prone and her PR company the Communications Clinic.
The department made this decision on the basis that there was no such correspondence.
However, Mr Tyndall’s office, in reviewing the department’s decision, found there is such correspondence.
He concluded the department did not take “all reasonable steps to ascertain the whereabouts of further records”; and he has requested that the department ask Ms Fitzgerald to check her personal email accounts for any other records.
On March 11, 2017, journalist, Dublin Institute of Technology lecturer and director at Right To Know Ken Foxe made a request for “copies of all correspondence, both written and electronic” between Fine Gael TD Frances Fitzgerald and/or her private office and Terry Prone and her PR company the Communications Clinic – from the time Ms Fitzgerald was made Minister for Justice to the date of his request.
This meant Mr Foxe’s request covered correspondence between May 8, 2014 and March 11, 2017.
[Ms Fitzgerald stepped down as Minister for Justice on June 14, 2017]
The department wrote back to Mr Foxe two days after receiving his request, saying it was seeking four more weeks (on top of the initial four weeks provided for) to make a decision on the matter, without any explanation for why they needed the extra time.
On May 15, 2017, Mr Foxe sought an internal review as, by then, Mr Foxe deemed his request was refused.
On June 8, 2017, the department decided to refuse the request because, it said, there were no such records.
But it’s on public record Ms Fitzgerald paid the Communications Clinic, via a special secretarial allowance, more than €11,000 between the date she became minister and the end of 2016.
Those present at Disclosures Tribunal earlier this year also saw written/email communications between Ms Prone and Ms Fitzgerald during the relevant time of Mr Foxe’s request.
In the same month, June 2017, Mr Foxe appealed the department’s decision to the Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall – believing that there had not been a thorough search of Ms Fitzgerald’s professional and personal emails and messages.
In turn, an investigator with the Information Commissioner’s office asked the Department of Justice about the steps it took to search for records relevant to Mr Foxe’s request.
The department then discovered 74 records which had not been considered relevant previously.
In his decision regarding Mr Foxe’s appeal, Mr Tyndall wrote:
“It seems that in late January 2018, following concerns expressed by my investigative staff that further records could be held, the Department searched archived email accounts.
My Office identified 68 records that fall within the scope of the applicant’s request and advised the Department of this. The remaining six records were created after the FOI request was made and are not therefore within the scope of the review.”
Mr Tyndall also wrote that some of the records finally located by the department were related to speeches given by Ms Fitzgerald.
He also wrote:
“in response to the query about whether it [the department] had considered
records held in personal email accounts, the department stated that it ‘has no access to or control over such accounts, particularly in respect of persons no longer working in the Department’.”
Mr Tyndall, in his decision, explained that the Department of Justice said it wouldn’t be appropriate for it to ask Ms Fitzgerald whether she has records of correspondence with Ms Prone or the Communications Clinic in her personal email accounts “that might fall within the scope of the request”, and that the department “does not feel it is in a position to go outside of the scope of the FOI Act and seek such information from [Ms Fitzgerald] in an attempt to respond to an FOI request”.
However, Mr Tyndall said he couldn’t accept this position.
Specifically, Mr Tyndall said:
“It appears from the records retrieved by the Department and dealt with above that the former Minister and some of her staff used gmail addresses in correspondence with the company [the Communications Clinic] about official functions and activities of the Department.
“To the extent that a gmail or other account may have been used in this way, I do not accept that such content could reasonably be characterised as “private”. I do not believe that it is particularly relevant that the former Minister is no longer working in the Department.”
Yesterday Mr Tyndall made the following decision:
“I hereby annul the department’s decision to effectively refuse access to records identified during the course of this review and I direct it to undertake a fresh decision making process on those records.
“I direct the department to ask the former minister whether she holds additional records within the scope of the applicant’s FOI request and if she does, to retrieve them and furnish them to the department so that it can make a decision on them in accordance with the provisions of the FOI Act.
“The fresh decision making process should be carried out and decisions on both elements above notified to the applicant in accordance with section 8 of the FOI Act.
“For clarity, I specify that subject to sections 24 and 26 of the Act, the statutory time limit for making a decision begins within five working days of the expiration of the four week period for the bringing of a High Court appeal.”
There you go now.
Previously: ‘Records Do In Fact Exist’
Norin’s Prone Position