Laurentian University’s refusal to hand over documents related to its financial meltdown represents a challenge to the authority of parliament, the Ontario Legislature concluded Thursday.
Members took the rare step of authorizing the Speaker to issue a warrant for documents sought by the standing committee on public accounts related to Laurentian’s insolvency.
Laurentian continued to push back, however, saying that disclosure of the documents would interfere with a court process and place its officers at risk of being in contempt of a court order.
The Sudbury university filed for creditor protection in February, a first for a publicly funded university in Canada. As part of that process, it has been subject to continuing court proceedings that in the university’s view could be jeopardized if it released the documents the legislature is seeking.
All three parties at Queen’s Park spoke in favour of issuing a warrant for the documents. Government House Leader Paul Calandra said it was “deeply troubling” that Laurentian had put parliament in this position.
“Your utter disrespect for parliament and the people of Ontario is shameful and will not stand,” Mr. Calandra said. “My advice to Laurentian is this: End these reckless games.”
Mr. Calandra added that the legislature has many tools still at its disposal, including punitive measures, should Laurentian continue to defy parliamentary oversight.
Laurentian University said it was “deeply disappointed and gravely concerned” by the developments at Queen’s Park.
“This is a clear attempt to pre-empt and interfere with an existing court process,” Laurentian said in a statement published on its website.
“The Standing Committee seeks the disclosure of documents and information that the Court has ordered to remain confidential, as well as documents subject to the constitutionally-protected privilege of Laurentian University and many third parties. As such, complying with a Speaker’s warrant would mean violating a court order.”
In a letter to the Speaker, Laurentian lawyer Brian Gover argued that the documents sought by the legislature are part of an already existing legal dispute involving the Auditor-General, who was asked in April by the committee on public accounts to conduct a value-for-money audit of the university.
That matter was heard before in Ontario Superior Court on Dec. 6. Laurentian said the Speaker’s warrant creates “chaos and confusion” at a time when it should be focused on emerging from the creditor-protection process overseen by the court.
The documents sought by parliament include e-mails from Laurentian administrators, financial documents and communications with its auditor, among other things.
NDP MPP Jamie West said the university had thumbed its nose at the legislature for months now. He said he was concerned that if parliament didn’t act in this case, it could set a dangerous precedent.
In her appearance before the public accounts committee earlier this week, Auditor-General Brenda Lysyk said her office had never seen a level of pushback comparable to what it has encountered from Laurentian.
In her update on the special audit published last week, Ms. Lysyk described a “culture of fear” at the university.
Ms. Lysyk said Laurentian had refused to provide information it claims is subject to solicitor-client privilege, but has also declined to provide non-privileged information, arguing that reviewing the documents would be too resource-intensive. Ms. Lysyk said her office sought the e-mails of senior administrators – standard practice in many audits – but was turned down by the university.
Laurentian has until Feb. 1 to provide the documents to the legislature. The committee had already provided assurances to Laurentian that the documents, once handed over, would not be made public. If Laurentian’s administrators and legal counsel continue to resist, parliament could impose a range of sanctions.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.