Opinion

Five Years On, Clark's 'Open Government' Pledge Unfulfilled

Six scandals add up to 'promise made, promise broken.'

By Bob Mackin, 14 Mar 2016, TheTyee.ca

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Cartoon by Greg Perry.

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On March 14, 2011, Christy Clark was sworn-in as the 35th premier of British Columbia. Two years later, she became the first woman to lead a B.C. party to a majority election victory.

When the BC Liberal Party chose her to succeed Gordon Campbell on Feb. 26, 2011, Clark directed the first words of her acceptance speech to all British Columbians.

"I want you to be my partners in change in Victoria, I want you to be my partners in bringing open government," she said, even before addressing her leadership campaign policies on jobs and families.

When her new cabinet was sworn in at Government House, Clark reaffirmed the commitment to open government. "Our government will be open to the people of British Columbia," she promised. "We will talk about our problems, we will set our priorities openly and we will work with citizens to find solutions."

Baby steps were taken. Beginning in July 2011, the government started publishing the results of most FOI requests after they were delivered to applicants. Last year, it posted expenses for MLAs and their offices.

But Clark's government has failed to act on recommendations from a 2013 report by Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham that called on it to stop waiting for freedom of information requests and simply publish information like travel and hospitality expense reports, contracts over $10,000 and ministerial and bureaucrat calendars.

Denham has also repeatedly slammed Clark for leading an "oral government" after a spate of "no records" responses to FOI requests. Denham wants a duty to document law, new powers to investigate document destruction and fines of up to $50,000 for breaking the law. So far, only the opposition NDP seems to be listening. It tabled a private member's bill addressing some of those concerns, the Government Records Accountability Act, on March 10.

Here are the milestones of Clark's five years of scandals surrounding information and privacy under her watch.

Sept. 6, 2012: Health firings announced

Newly appointed Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid's first task was to announce the firing of eight health researchers over an alleged data breach and procurement irregularities in pharmaceutical safety research at two of the province's biggest universities.

Ministry staff gave her predecessor Mike de Jong briefing notes in July and August with talking points that included a claim the RCMP had been contacted. The Mounties weren't called until Sept. 12, 2012. The government's claims that the RCMP was investigating were false, according to RCMP documents released in 2015.

Most of the eight people fired have since been exonerated and rehired or paid compensation. One, Roderick MacIsaac, killed himself.

The government, after a failed review by Victoria lawyer Marcia McNeil, resisted calls for a public inquiry and opted in July 2015 to give the file to ombudsperson Jay Chalke instead.

Feb. 27, 2013: Quick Wins

On Feb. 27, 2013, the NDP released leaked documents about a BC Liberal plan to target ethnic voters. The campaign was led by Clark's deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad, and involved both party staff and government employees. Several cabinet ministers and aides were communicating on private email systems, rather than their government-issued addresses, in an effort to avoid being detected by FOI applicants.

Based on new evidence the NDP sent to the RCMP later in 2013, lawyer David Butcher was appointed special prosecutor. Party operatives Mark Robertson and Brian Bonney are facing trial in August on Election Act charges filed in 2014. Butcher's final report has not been revealed.

Sept. 22, 2015: Education hard drive lost

The government sheepishly revealed it couldn't find a backup hard drive containing personal information about 3.4 million people in B.C. and Yukon who were students or teachers from 1986 to 2009. Staff had transferred information from servers to two hard drives in spring 2011 and lost track of the backups.

A record showed one drive was stored in a leased storage space, Denham wrote in a January 2015 report, "but no one could verify whether it had ever arrived at the warehouse."

A briefing note to help Minister Amrik Virk to respond to media questions said 4,420 government privacy breaches had been reported to the Office of the Chief Information Officer since 2010. "The trend was increasing through 2014, but has since begun to decline as public service employees have become aware, through training and awareness activities, of the need to report all actual or suspected privacy breaches and other information incidents," said the briefing note.

Oct. 19, 2015: Paige's Story

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the watchdog for children in care in B.C., called her report on the life and death of Paige Gauchier one of the most difficult she had ever undertaken. Turpel-Lafond's report -- "Paige's Story: Abuse, Indifference and a Young Life Discarded" -- was released on May 14, 2015, and the government promised to respond later with details on measures to improve services to protect the most vulnerable children and youth in its care.

Documents obtained by The Tyee showed communications staff in the Ministry of Children and Family Development wanted to release the government's response after Turpel-Lafond's Oct. 15, 2015 briefing. Other days were considered. But a message from assistant deputy minister Matt Gordon said the Premier's Office wanted the response released on Oct. 19, 2015. That was federal election day and the eventual 3 p.m. release caught reporters -- whose outlets were busy with one of the biggest federal stories of the decade -- by surprise.

Oct. 22, 2015: Triple Delete

Whistleblower Tim Duncan went public on May 28, 2015, claiming that his superior in Transport Minister Todd Stone's office, George Gretes, had grabbed a computer keyboard from him and deleted emails that should have been provided in a response to an FOI request about the Highway of Tears.

An investigation by Denham corroborated Duncan's allegations. In her report, "Access Denied," she also found Clark's deputy chief of staff Michele Cadario, issues management director Evan Southern, and Nick Facey, chief of staff for Citizens' Services Minister Amrik Virk, had breached the FOI law. Gretes was forced to resign. Stone admitted that he triple deletes his email, making it impossible to provide information under FOI requests.

Denham appeared before a legislature all-party committee on Nov. 18, asking for amendments to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, including a hike in fines for individuals from $2,000 to $50,000.

Dec. 17, 2015: Top party staffer charged in Ontario email deletion scandal

Laura Miller was a key part of the team that helped the BC Liberals score an upset win over the NDP in the 2013 election. The Ontario import helped the party erase its debt and begin amassing a war chest for the 2017 campaign.

Now, Miller is facing charges of breach of public trust, mischief, mischief in relation to data, and misuse of a computer system to commit mischief from her time as deputy chief of staff to then Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty. Miller is accused of mass-deleting emails related to the politically motivated decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants in Ontario.

When the Ontario Provincial Police announced the charges on Dec. 17, 2015, Miller immediately announced she was quitting as the BC Liberals' executive director to focus on clearing her name in Ontario.

However, both Miller's name and voice remained on the BC Liberal Party office's voice mail system through Feb. 22. It was only changed after a reporter asked why. Acting executive director Evan Southern, who took over from Miller on Dec. 18, 2015, called it an "oversight."

March 11, 2015: Triple-delete charges

Denham's "Access Denied" report included allegations that Gretes had lied under oath about deleting records. Denham forwarded her findings to the RCMP. Special prosecutor Mark Jette investigated and two counts of misleading a commissioner were filed against Gretes. The charges, under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, carry a maximum $5,000 fine. Gretes's first appearance is scheduled for April 20. Neither Clark nor Stone's offices were talking. Attorney General Suzanne Anton issued a statement saying she wouldn't comment because the case is before the courts.  [Tyee]

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