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An Unsung 2015 Newsmaker: The Delete Key

In BC and beyond, it became a sensation among politicians and staff.

Bob Mackin 31 Dec

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

An emoji was the word of the year for Oxford Dictionaries in 2015. A suffix, -ism, got the nod from Merriam-Webster. But I'm going with Delete, or, more precisely, the Delete key, for the newsmaker of the year.

Consider what happened in British Columbia and beyond, as politicians and their staff were caught playing keep-away in novel fashion.

In February, Ontario Provincial Police court documents claimed 632,118 files from 20 computers were deleted in the premier's office that related to the Ontario government's decision to nix two gas-fired power plants. The decision may have helped save strategic seats in Mississauga and Oakville and helped Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty's 2011 minority election win. It also may have cost Ontarians $1 billion.

Correspondence between McGuinty's then chief of staff David Livingston and deputy chief of staff Laura Miller included musing about double-deleting email rather than letting it be caught in a freedom of information disclosure.

Miller worked in the BC Liberals' backroom in 2013, helping engineer Christy Clark's surprise upset of Adrian Dix and the BC NDP. She later became the party's executive director, but quit immediately after being charged this December with criminal offences over the deletion of computer files related to the gas plant scandal. Livingston was also charged. Both have strongly denied any wrongdoing; the allegations haven't been proven in court.

Miller's successor at BC Liberal headquarters? Evan Southern, Clark's freedom of information coordinator who used Post-It notes to track requests to the Premier's Office. Southern was mentioned by title, not name, in an explosive October report into the government's record-keeping practices by Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, which led to an RCMP investigation of George Gretes, an aide to Transport Minister Todd Stone.

Denham, tipped-off by whistleblower Tim Duncan, found that triple-deleting email was rampant in the executive branch. Clark's deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, had routinely deleted her email since day one in the job. Gretes, Denham alleged, lied under oath about deleting email that should have been released to FOI requesters.

NDP leader John Horgan pounced on the scandal and blasted Clark for what he called "a culture of deception, deceit and delete, delete, delete."

Clark responded by ordering staff to not delete their email. Denham's predecessor, David Loukidelis, was hired for $50,000 to produce a report that offered more recommendations, but was seemingly buried amid a parade of pre-Christmas government photo ops. Clark carefully said she accepted the recommendations, but will the BC Liberals take the next step and adopt or enact any as policy or law?

The City of Vancouver also wasn't immune to the delete button, as one of Denham's investigators confirmed in January that Mayor Gregor Robertson's chief of staff, Mike Magee, purged much of his email. Denham's office announced in November that Vancouver city hall was under an FOI compliance audit.

Delete goes global

In the United States, Barack Obama's 2009 swearing-in brought a government-wide transparency pledge. Ironically, the last National Freedom of Information Day of his presidency on March 16 coincided with the exemption of the White House's Office of Administration from federal FOI laws.

Or, as the USA Today's headline put it, "White House office to delete its FOIA regulations."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office bowed to pressure and stopped automatically deleting 90-day-old emails in May. That's the good news. The bad news? Staff were allowed to delete messages manually as they please.

The Telegraph reported in June that the Delete key was well-used in the British bureaucracy. The Department of Energy and Climate Change began auto-deleting messages once they reached one year old. The Financial Times reported that Downing Street, headquarters for Prime Minister David Cameron, had been deleting three-month-old messages since 2004.

There were similar policies at the Department for International Development and the Cabinet Office. "If it was ephemeral, or it's already on file, don't clog up your PC with superfluous documents," said a 2004 guidance note from the Cabinet Office.

By August, an online service that archived deleted tweets by politicians in 35 countries was kaput. Twitter blocked the Open State Foundation from continuing Politwoops. All was not lost, however, as the foundation made available an archive of 1.1 million deleted tweets by 10,400 politicians over a five-year period.

"Even when tweets are deleted, it's part of parliamentary history," the foundation wrote in a statement. "This is not about typos, but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice."

Deleting, 2016 style

One political hopeful in Calgary likely wished she could've deleted some of her four-year-old tweets in time for the federal election. Ala Buzreba apologized for her angry 2011 tweets, such as "go blow your brains out you waste of sperm," but quit her Liberal campaign against incumbent Conservative Michelle Rempel.

The week before Christmas, MinnPost found that the land of 10,000 lakes might also be the land of empty email boxes. It reported on its largely futile request for two years of email between Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and his aides about a controversial sex offender program. "State policies allow employees -- from minor staffers all the way up to agency heads and the governor -- to delete those emails at their discretion."

Looking ahead to 2016, what will become of the Delete key and its most famous user?

Hillary Clinton wants to go from ex-First Lady to first female president. But her use of an FOI-evading private email server during her Secretary of State years continues to dog her bid for the Democratic nomination. She claimed she deleted 30,000 messages, but reports in September indicated the FBI was able to salvage many of them.

Since May, the end of each month has brought a new trove of court-ordered Clinton email releases. By the end of January 2016, some 55,000 pages will be available online.

Please note our comment threads will be closed Dec. 21 to Jan. 3 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. Happy holidays, readers.  [Tyee]

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