In media reports and private conversations, among casual observers and insiders alike, the bombshell that dropped on Queen’s Park on Thursday has been commonly referred to as the latest twist in the scandal around the cancellation of a pair of gas-fired power plants.
It was an obvious assumption to make. It was the alleged cover-up of the costs of those cancellations that caused the Ontario Provincial Police to be called in. And that in turn has resulted in the police alleging a criminal breach of trust against David Livingston, the former chief of staff to Dalton McGuinty.
But nowhere in newly unsealed court documents, which allege Mr. Livingston brought in an outsider to wipe the hard drives of two dozen staff computers during Mr. McGuinty’s final days in office, is the nature of the allegedly deleted files addressed. And to speak to those familiar with how the former premier’s office was functioning at the end is to wonder how much this is really about the gas plants at all.
If that sounds as if it might offer comfort to Mr. McGuinty’s successor, Kathleen Wynne, it shouldn’t. Instead, she should be worried that beyond the controversies she knows she inherited, there are others waiting to blow up if the contents of those computers are ever retrieved.
The gas-plant mess, to be sure, may have been one cause of Mr. Livingston’s alleged actions. At the time, the government was still strongly resisting the disclosure of related documents to legislative committees. But the allegation that fully two dozen computers were targeted, including those of relatively junior staff members unlikely to have played a role in a highly complicated and sensitive energy file, would suggest a broader sweep.
The frantic deletion of files – shredding, in the old days – is something of a time-honoured tradition before changes in government. And that’s effectively what this was, at least at the level of the Premier’s office; almost all of Mr. McGuinty’s senior staff were on their way out, and communications with their replacements are known to have been strained at best.
But much more than most other rookie premiers, Ms. Wynne has cause to worry about how much – and what – her predecessor’s staff might have tried to hide.
That’s partly because, however much it may have seemed like it to those on the inside, this wasn’t a change in government from many other Ontarians’ perspectives; as has already been well demonstrated, she can’t simply disown anything unpleasant she may have inherited.
There is also the fact that, by many accounts, Mr. McGuinty’s office was an unusually toxic place by the end of his run, beset by turf-protecting and infighting and peculiar notions of how to interact with those on the outside. It is a decent prospect that an office in which senior staff discussed over e-mail a possible attempt to intimidate the Speaker of the Legislature, as happened during the gas-plant saga, was home to other potentially problematic communications on other files as well.
Finally, there is the reality that eliminating paper trails isn’t as easy as it used to be, now that they’re not just on paper. The police version of how Mr. Livingston went about trying to get rid of electronic files, which allegedly culminated in the “life partner” of a deputy chief of staff coming in at the last minute to wipe computers in front of the faces of confused staffers, does not suggest great depth of data-management expertise. So it is entirely possible that at some point, deleted files will be retrieved.
As police try to achieve just that, it will be portrayed as the search for gas-plants answers. But the basics of that story, at least, are already known. Ms. Wynne has to hope there aren’t others lurking that haven’t yet been told at all.
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