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RCMP alerted over scathing report into deleted B.C. government e-mails

Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press Images

B.C. Premier Christy Clark's government routinely thwarts access to information requests through such tactics as triple-deleting e-mails, an investigation by the province's Information and Privacy Commissioner has found. Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has referred one instance to the RCMP and is calling more broadly for changes to an embedded culture that discourages written documentation and record-keeping.

"I am deeply disappointed by the practices our investigation uncovered," Ms. Denham wrote in her report, Access Denied, released Thursday. "Where major problems exist, only major change will suffice."

The provincial government either "willfully or negligently" fails to produce documents and evades personal accountability by relying on verbal responses to information requests. In one case, a senior aide lied under oath to commission investigators about his role in deleting e-mails that were the subject of an access request.

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In response, the government on Thursday accepted the resignation of the aide at the centre of the investigation, George Gretes, and promised to study additional changes. But the Clark government, which has promised to be the most open and transparent in the province's history, remains unconvinced that the routine deletion of so-called transitory records such as e-mail should end.

The investigation was triggered by a complaint from a former government employee, Tim Duncan, who alleged Mr. Gretes deliberately deleted e-mail records that may have been required to respond to an access to information request in November, 2014.

The specifics of that case, along with Mr. Gretes's "failure to tell the truth under oath," have been referred to the RCMP, said Ms. Denham's report, which contains allegations that have not been tested in court.

The other two cases in the report involve the Premier's office and the Ministry of Advanced Education. All three examples involve access to information requests filed by the opposition New Democratic Party.

"Ms. Denham has done very good work to expose a culture of deception – delete, delete, delete," NDP Leader John Horgan said. Letting just one employee go despite the wide scope of Ms. Denham's criticism, he said, was "reprehensible."

Mr. Gretes was the ministerial assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone. Mr. Stone told reporters on Thursday that he intends to continue to triple-delete e-mails, something he described as a normal routine.

"I understand exactly what the expectations are with respect to the retention of records and I adhere 100 per cent to the act," he said.

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Mr. Stone maintained he is allowed to empty items in the "Recover Deleted Items" folder of his e-mail account to ensure documents cannot be recovered – a practice Ms. Denham wants prohibited. "She certainly has her interpretation of the act," Mr. Stone said.

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act was introduced by B.C.'s NDP government of the 1990s, and the Liberal government that followed clearly chafed under its requirements. In 2003, then-premier Gordon Campbell's deputy minister revealed that he would rarely write down meeting notes and that he quickly deleted his e-mails to avoid what he described as media fishing expeditions.

When she became Premier in 2011, Ms. Clark vowed to "change and open up government to British Columbians." But Ms. Denham's office has repeatedly raised concerns that the habit of avoidance remains firmly entrenched.

In Thursday's report, Ms. Denham concluded that Ms. Clark's office contravened its duty to comply with the province's access to information law.

She found the office has a "troubling" practice of responding to freedom of information requests verbally. As well, Ms. Clark's deputy chief of staff "effectively frustrates" the province's access to information law by treating virtually all of her e-mail communications as "transitory records," which are then deleted. Transitory records are defined as convenience copies, unnecessary duplicates and working materials and drafts once the finished record has been produced. But the commissioner found that definition is being applied far too broadly.

Amrik Virk, the minister responsible for freedom of information, told reporters Thursday that no other officials will face consequences for the practices that were criticized by Ms. Denham.

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"The report is very clear: One staffer clearly did not meet government's expectations and that staffer has resigned."

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