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Rights + Justice

Investigate Kenney’s Secrecy System, Say MLAs

The opposition NDP and an independent MLA have formally asked the information commissioner to probe Tyee revelations.

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell 10 May

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.

Alberta’s Opposition NDP and an independent MLA have asked the province’s information commissioner to investigate allegations, revealed in a Tyee exclusive, that United Conservative Party political staffers are improperly stymying freedom-of-information requests under direction from Premier Jason Kenney’s office.

In interviews, three former and current UCP senior political staffers told The Tyee how the premier’s office instructed staffers to delete emails, use personal phones to conduct government business, and communicate through Slack and WhatsApp channels that are regularly wiped. “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 said they understood the unwritten directive was to “delete everything, to have no records” so that nobody could get any of our information.”

One staffer also alleged UCP ministers, MLAs and staffers were encouraged to use their personal rather than government issued cellphones for government business. The staffers spoke on condition of confidentiality because it could affect their current or future employment.

On Tuesday, NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir, in a letter, formally asked commissioner Jill Clayton to launch an investigation into the staffers’ claims.

“These allegations, if true, show that the UCP government has grossly violated the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” Sabir wrote.

“Access to information is a foundational principle of our democracy and any attempt to breach, reduce or impede access for the public to the public records that are rightfully theirs must be taken seriously and investigated in full.”

Independent MLA Todd Loewen, formerly a member of the UCP caucus, echoed the NDP’s points in a letter to Clayton Tuesday, and also said such practices lead to a “significant threat” that government information could be intercepted.

“Personal cellphones and unsecured online messaging apps for government business represent a real and immediate security concern,” his letter stated.

“Whether it is guard against nefarious foreign or domestic interests, the fact is that markets can rise and fall on leaked and stolen information, along with other undesirable consequences.”

A spokesperson for Clayton’s office confirmed it has received both letters and is considering the requests.

On Tuesday, one of the staffers told The Tyee they will co-operate with any investigation by Clayton’s office.

Manipulation of records

The Alberta government, like others provincially and federally, has a long history of freedom of information and privacy scandals. But the staffers said the Kenney government’s attempts to stymie transparency and accountability are unlike anything they have seen in their many combined years working for other governments.

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,” one staffer said. “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.

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,” Brattinga wrote.

“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."

Sean Holman, a University of Victoria journalism professor and FOIP expert, said he was disappointed but not shocked by the Kenney government’s attitude toward freedom of information.

“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,” he said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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