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Inside the Kenney Government’s System of Secrecy

Staff is told to delete emails, use apps and personal phones to avoid scrutiny, insiders reveal. A Tyee investigation.

Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell 9 May 2022TheTyee.ca

Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell are independent investigative reporters based in Edmonton. They specialize in political accountability reporting and their award-winning journalism has forced transparency and democratic change in Alberta.

From the moment it assumed power in Alberta, the United Conservative government of Premier Jason Kenney has been criticized for secretive, anti-democratic practices that limit access to information about how the government operates.

The most high-profile example is the so-called Energy War Room, created as a private corporation to evade public scrutiny through freedom of information and protection of privacy. The Progress Report recently revealed Invest Alberta, with its multimillion-dollar budget, is also not subject to FOIP.

Now three former and current senior UCP political staffers have told The Tyee that the Kenney government’s attempts to stymie transparency and accountability extend to everyday operations — and are unlike anything they have seen in their many combined years working for other governments.

In interviews, the staffers described an enforced system designed to evade FOIP requests and limit the potential for leaks by deleting emails, communicating through Slack and WhatsApp channels that are regularly wiped, and using personal phones to conduct government business.

“The directive would come from the premier’s office staff during regular weekly and daily meetings, reminding everyone to ensure that they're up to date on their ‘records management,’” one former senior staffer said.

“‘Records management’ was code for deleting emails.”

Another senior staffer described their understanding of the premier’s office directive.

“To delete everything, to have no records,” they said. “So that nobody could get any of our information.”

“There was no rationale given. It was, ‘Manage your records, delete your stuff, make sure you have nothing. Use Slack for communication. Don't use your work phones.’”

Another current senior staffer said the premier’s office generally encourages staff not to create records so that they can’t be obtained through FOIP.

“There is always encouragement from the premier's office to pick up the phone, because there are no records,” the staffer said.

Another staffer said the unwritten directive applies to all UCP political staff, which includes ministers, press secretaries, chiefs of staff, issues managers and advisors.

They said WhatsApp is used by chiefs of staff while press secretaries and other staffers communicate with Slack, which is deleted at least once a week by a staffer in the premier’s office.

A former staffer said ministers and MLAs also often use their personal phones for government business.

Kenney's press secretary, Justin Brattinga, declined an interview request and instead provided an emailed statement that did not address the specific allegations.

"Staff are given training by the FOIP office in management and records keeping. Staff are expected to manage their records in accordance with the Government of Alberta Records and Information Management policies.

“There is no legal obligation or requirement to maintain transitory records once they are no longer required. Transitory records contain information in any format that is of temporary or limited usefulness — for example, a response to media."

But Sean Holman, a University of Victoria journalism professor and freedom-of-information expert, said, “It appears that at the very least those people operating at that level are stretching the definition of what constitutes a transitory record in a way that is politically advantageous in terms of keeping government information secret from the public.”

FOIP requests trigger orders to delete says former insider

The staffers spoke on condition of anonymity because it could affect their current and future employment.

All three independently said it was clear the deletions were specifically to thwart FOIP and to ensure politically damaging or embarrassing information could never be released. Two former staffers said they had seen FOIP requests, including from the media, that did not yield responsive records because they had been deleted under this unwritten policy.

One former staffer described how ministers, and chiefs of staff, would manipulate the release of information through FOIP to appear as if they were complying with the legislation while purposely excluding information that didn’t fit a predetermined government narrative.

“When it is an issue where there obviously should be some sort of record, the ministers’ chiefs of staff will orchestrate having certain emails to demonstrate that there is an actual paper trail. But it is orchestrated in a way that it is not embarrassing for the minister's office or the minister.”

This same staffer said ministers’ offices are often given 24 hours’ notice that a FOIP request has been filed.

“So everyone has 24 hours to delete all their emails, as well, and it is because not everyone does it all the time.”

Holman said the deletion, and selective release, of documents is contrary to the very purpose of FOIP.

“The entire point of freedom of information is so government doesn't have discretionary power to choose what information the public has and what information the public doesn't have about its operations,” he said.

Holman said he was not shocked by the Kenney government’s attitude toward freedom of information because governments always have sought to circumvent the laws.

“We have seen a steady erosion of the spirit of those laws ever since those laws were passed,” he said. “So this is part and parcel of an overall trend, both in Alberta and across Canada, as governments have become more secretive, less open — and by extension, less democratic.”

Holman said Alberta’s information commissioner should conduct a thorough review of how political staffers manage records.

A spokesperson for commissioner Jill Clayton said her office was unaware of the allegations.

‘These are the public’s records’

In British Columbia, a 2015 investigation by that province’s information commissioner found the BC Liberal government of former premier Christy Clark had behaved in ways very similar to the Kenney government of 2022.

Former commissioner Elizabeth Denham found Clark’s deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, had deleted all her emails every day. Cadario had claimed the legislation allows “transitory” emails to be deleted and she maintained every email was transitory.

But commission investigators recovered emails that should have been disclosed.

Two of the former Alberta staffers told The Tyee there is often no distinction between transitory emails and emails that should be retained: all are deleted.

Alberta has a long history of freedom-of-information scandals, especially under the long-governing Progressive Conservatives.

Documents released in 2013 showed that then-deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk directed press secretaries to gather information about FOIP requests that had the potential to embarrass the government. During a subsequent investigation by Alberta’s information commissioner, many ministries simply refused to hand over responsive records, citing solicitor-client privilege.

Internal emails also showed former Executive Council deputy minister Peter Watson, the government’s most senior civil servant at the time, personally directed several ministries to submit FOIP requests to his office so it could dictate what information could be released.

And, as Clayton has repeatedly said publicly, successive provincial governments have chronically underfunded FOIP, pushing the system — and her office, which handles request appeals — to the breaking point.

The Alberta staffers, however, said the Kenney government directive is essentially a policy of wholesale exclusion and suppression of public information.

All three Alberta staffers said they decided to speak out because they consider the directive to be anti-democratic.

“This is a democracy and people should know what the hell their government is doing and how they arrive at these decisions,” one said.

“These are the public's records. They are not the government's records; they belong to the people.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Media

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