The Globe & Mail
Friday, November 21, 1997
page A3

Québec data-selling scandal widens

Firing of civil servants over sale of tax files
sparks opposition demands for public inquiry

by Rhéal Séguin

QUÉBEC -- A Hydro-Québec employee has been fired for selling confidential information, bringing to nine the number of people in government corporations and ministries who have been discharged in recent months for breach of trust.

The Ministry of Revenue acknowledged on Wednesday that eight civil servants had been fired for activities that included the sale of confidential information about citizens' tax files.

Meanwhile, the Opposition Liberals said the government has created a company called Motus that could further compromise the protection of Quebeckers' confidential information. The company is expected to be operating soon.

The Liberals charged yesterday that the selling of confidential information is widespread in the civil service and government agencies, and they called for a full public inquiry.

"This is a scandal that smells of a cover-up", Liberal MNA Russell Williams said, referring to the recent firings. He demanded the resignation of Revenue Minister Rita Dionne Marsolais.

"We want to make sure that the trafficking of information is finished", he said.

The Liberals say the government has mishandled a serious breach of public trust and lost control over its data banks.

After telling the National Assembly yesterday that he was not aware of any illegal trafficking of information at Hydro-Québec, Natural Resources Minister Guy Chevrette was told by a member of his staff that at least one employee had been fired after an investigation by the provincial police and Hydro-Québec.

"Hydro-Québec didn't know before the police investigation that someone was trafficking information", Mr. Chevrette said later. "And during the course of the investigation they found someone was doing it and they fired that person."

Liberal Thomas Mulcair, who has been leading the Opposition attacks against the government's handling of the affair, said in an interview yesterday that Motus, the new semi-private company, will handle and sell information on private citizens held by Québec's health insurance board.

The insurance board, known as the Régie de l'assurance-maladie du Québec, will be part-owner of Motus along with a subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt et placement, the provincial pension-fund manager, and Innovatech, a government-run research and development agency.

Mr. Mulcair said the recent revelations about the public service should persuade the government not to allow a private firm to handle sensitive information.

"Under the law the Régie could not [release information] on its own. So it seems to me that what they are doing is setting up a company to do indirectly that which its director-general, André Dicaire, clearly admits they would not be allowed to do directly", Mr. Mulcair said. "They would be setting up a company as a front ... to make money off their data banks and the information they have."

Mr. Mulcair expressed concern that employees of the company could gain access to further information if the company expanded into other government agencies.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Dicaire said that Motus would not have access to confidential information and that its only role would be to create computer software to encrypt confidential files for transmission, for example, from a pharmacist's computer to the province's drug insurance board.

"At no time will Motus have access to personal health files", Mr. Dicaire said.

But Mr. Mulcair argued the government took huge risks by allowing Motus to be set up six months ago without a full public debate.

On Tuesday, the TVA television network broadcast a telephone interview in which a reporter, posing as a potential client, was told by an investigator from the firm Megraprobe Investigations that information on individual taxpayers could be obtained from the Quebec Ministry of Revenue at a cost of $450 per person.

Copyright © 1997 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.