British Columbia's Ministry of Justice says a ruling that ordered its Civil Forfeiture Office to disclose the names of its employees did not properly consider the safety risks and should be discarded.
An adjudicator with the province's Information and Privacy Commissioner last July ruled the government agency – which has faced questions of fairness and transparency – could not withhold the names of its employees. The issue arose following a freedom-of-information request.
The ministry, however, is now seeking a judicial review of the adjudicator's decision with the matter set to be heard in B.C. Supreme Court later this month. The ministry's written submission says adjudicator Elizabeth Barker applied too high a standard of proof and takes particular issue with her ruling that a government security official's affidavit concerning employee safety did not qualify as expert evidence.
"The adjudicator was wrong, and unreasonable, to decide that she had the ability to assess the reasonableness of the threat faced by the CFO staff unaided by evidence from a witness with expertise in assessing and dealing with such threats," says the ministry's submission, which was filed by lawyer Jonathan Penner late last month.
Carl Prophet, the ministry's strategic lead for corporate security and risk, swore an affidavit that said employees at the Civil Forfeiture Office are "confronted with the same level of risk in relation to their personal safety as prosecutors." Mr. Prophet added that "in the organized crime community, successfully committing a criminal act against CFO employees and going to jail for such an act may be seen as a badge of honour."
Ms. Barker, however, said the ministry failed to prove releasing the list of employees would put them at risk. She said it was not sufficient to rely on speculation. Ms. Barker was not swayed by the four examples of threats that were provided by the director of civil forfeiture, Phil Tawtel. One involved a man who said he would show up at the office and protest over his case. Details were not given for two other cases. Ms. Barker said an instance in which an employee was told to "watch out" could be seen as threatening.
Critics hailed the ruling at the time, arguing the security concerns were vague and hypothetical and that jurisdictions such as Ontario disclose the names of their civil-forfeiture employees from the director down to administrative assistants.
Jeremy Maddock, the law student who submitted the FOI request, said in an interview Tuesday he was surprised the ministry had gone to such great lengths to keep the information confidential.
"Public officials should not serve anonymously. They should be accountable to the people. In the civil-forfeiture context, I haven't seen a lot of that," he said.
Mr. Maddock's written submission says Ms. Barker was "meticulously fair" to the ministry. He says Mr. Prophet's evidence was "speculative" and did not demonstrate any actual security risk.
A spokesperson with the Ministry of Justice, when asked why the names of civil-forfeiture employees are not disclosed when the names of other government employees are, declined to comment since the matter is before the courts. The spokesperson also would not say how much the province has spent on the matter to date. A spokesperson with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner also declined to comment, citing the court case.
The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office over the past year. The office does not need a conviction or charges to pursue a case and critics have called it a cash cow for government. B.C.'s office has seized millions of dollars more than a similar office in Ontario, despite opening three years later.