Privacy commissioner recuses himself from cyberattack probe, denies 'bias' claim

Michael Harvey was appointed Newfoundland and Labrador's information and privacy commissioner in 2019. (Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner - image credit)
Michael Harvey was appointed Newfoundland and Labrador's information and privacy commissioner in 2019. (Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner - image credit)

Newfoundland and Labrador privacy commissioner Michael Harvey is stepping back from his office's ongoing investigation into the 2021 health-care cyberattack, after the Furey administration launched a court action to stop him.

In a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, Harvey rejected the government's claims of "bias" against him, and said he's done nothing wrong.

Harvey said he believes it is in the public interest to have the investigation completed in a timely manner and the report released to the public.

For that reason, Harvey said, he has decided to recuse himself from further involvement, to avoid a lengthy and expensive court proceeding.

"While I maintain that there is no actual bias or reasonable apprehension of bias with me concluding this investigation, my priority is to avoid any further delay in the release of our office's report," Harvey said in a press release.

"It is in the greater public interest that the report gets out, than for me to be the one to issue it. I have every confidence in our lead investigator, the technical experts that we have contracted, and Sean Murray — who has 18 years of experience with the [commissioner's office], to conclude this investigation."

Harvey said he is delegating his authority to conduct and conclude the investigation to Murray, the office's director of research and quality assurance.

In court filings last week, the province pointed to Harvey's past roles as an assistant deputy minister of health and on the board of the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information before his appointment as privacy commissioner in 2019.

The government's application contended that the ongoing cyberattack investigation deals with issues that arose when Harvey held those positions of responsibility, and therefore he "should not be permitted to lead the investigation or participate in it in any manner."

In his statement, Harvey said he is surprised to find the matter being raised at this juncture, more than a year into the investigation, noting that his past roles were well known.

More than a year ago, after receiving a letter from the four health authorities about it, Harvey said he consulted staff and outside legal counsel, and reviewed all of the records from his time on the board.

He said that legal analysis, combined with a review of those records, confirmed that he had not had any significant involvement with cybersecurity issues.

Furey says 'robust, fair review' is important

CBC News broke the story about the government's court action on Tuesday morning.

That sparked a series of volleys between the Opposition and government benches in question period at the House of Assembly later in the afternoon.

"It is important that a robust, fair review be undertaken. We just want to ensure that there is such a process in place, a robust process in place," Premier Andrew Furey told the legislature.

"We want to ensure that there is a fair process in place, one that does not have an apprehension bias … so the people of Newfoundland and Labrador can have a full and fulsome review of what happened."

House of Assembly
House of Assembly

Opposition Leader David Brazil told reporters the government's court action was "alarming and insulting" to the people of the province.

"Are they hiding something? Is there something here that should be out in the public domain that isn't?"

NDP Leader Jim Dinn referenced Furey's past fishing trip at a Labrador luxury lodge owned by the premier's friend and hydrogen project proponent John Risley.

"I would assume that Michael Harvey's ethical walls are just as sound as the premier's ethical walls," Dinn told reporters.

"Mr. Harvey, in my dealings with him, has always been impartial, ethical and above board. And he's done his job, I would have to say, in holding government to account."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador