The Information and Privacy Commissioner has slammed the British Columbia government for deleting too many emails and has asked the RCMP to investigate whether a former ministerial assistant lied under oath.
"I am deeply disappointed by the practices our investigation uncovered," Elizabeth Denham wrote in a report released today, Access Denied: Record Retention and Disposal Practices of the Government of British Columbia.
Among the findings was that George Gretes, a ministerial assistant to Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone, had likely deleted emails that were subject to a freedom of information request related to the Highway of Tears in northern B.C.
During the investigation, Gretes at first denied having deleted the emails on former staffer Tim Duncan's computer, but later changed his story, Denham wrote. "The Commissioner has referred this case to the RCMP for investigation, including Gretes' failure to tell the truth under oath," her report said.
Denham also found that Premier Christy Clark's deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, was in the habit of inappropriately deleting almost all emails she sent in the course of her work. While staff may delete "transitory" emails, Denham found Cadario's interpretation was overly broad.
The report also found the Advanced Education ministry mishandled a 2014 request where the minister's chief of staff failed to release records that had been requested under the province's freedom of information law.
"I would have expected that staff in ministers' offices and in the Office of the Premier would have a better understanding of records management and their obligation to file, retain and provide relevant records when an access request is received," Denham wrote.
"It has become clear that many employees falsely assume that emails are impermanent and transitory, and therefore of little value," the report said. "What this investigation makes clear is that it is a record's content and context that determines whether a record is transitory, rather than its form."
Denham recommended that the government "make a technical fix" so that employees can no longer permanently delete emails. She also said employees should have mandatory training in records management to ensure they follow the law when responding to access to information requests.
'A culture of delete, delete, delete'
Though Denham was not giving interviews on the report, a press release quoted her saying, "In the course of this investigation, we uncovered negligent searches for records, a failure to keep adequate email records, a failure to document searches, and the willful destruction of records responsive to an access request. Taken together, these practices threaten the integrity of access to information in British Columbia."
The commissioner's investigation looked at the government's monthly email backups, seized and inspected computers, and reviewed mailbox metadata and message tracking logs, in "one of the most resource-intensive and technical investigations the commissioner has undertaken," according to the release.
Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services Minister Amrik Virk said the government has accepted Gretes' resignation.
Virk said in a news conference that all government staff are expected to follow the province's laws and that the government is acting on Denham's recommendations. "All government employees have responsibility to ensure they are properly responding to Freedom of Information requests," he said.
The government has hired former B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis to provide advice on how to address Denham's recommendations and improve training for staff on how to respond to requests, Virk said.
Virk said the documents from the cases Denham examined will be released. "Our government remains committed to being as open and transparent as possible," he said. He noted that over the course of five years the province has responded to thousands of freedom of information requests by releasing hundreds of thousands of pages of records.
In the legislature, NDP leader John Horgan called Denham's report a "scathing indictment" and said the government has "a culture of deception. A culture of deceit. A culture of delete, delete, delete."
Doug Routley, the NDP critic for Citizen's Services, said, "I can hear them revving up the bus outside to throw people under." The overall issue is not about the actions of a few people, but the integrity of the government, he said.
Duncan, the former staffer who in May made the deletion of Highway of Tears emails public, said, "Every single [recommendation] goes against the government, right to the deputy chief of staff," Duncan said. "I'm glad I took the risk [of going public as a whistleblower]."
Duncan said he was glad Denham's office was able to prove that the allegations were true, but that more needs to be done to clean-up the government's practices. "Did they go far enough? They're still going to rely on self-reporting."
With files from Bob Mackin.
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