B.C. justice officials are looking for a new special prosecutor to advise the RCMP as they investigate the government's handling of records, after the lawyer tasked with the job quit the same day his appointment was announced.
Six hours after the criminal justice branch announced Vancouver lawyer Greg DelBigio would be special prosecutor, the branch said he was stepping down because he is a defence lawyer in an unrelated case – being handled by another special prosecutor – that involves a former employee of the governing B.C. Liberal Party.
"Neither Mr. DelBigio, nor the criminal justice branch, considers this situation as one that gives rise to any real or apparent conflict of interest," said a branch statement. "However, out of an abundance of caution and in recognition of the importance of safeguarding the perceived and actual integrity of the investigation and prosecution process, Mr. DelBigio has decided to withdraw from his appointment."
The branch said it will find and announce a replacement "as soon as reasonably practicable."
Mr. DelBigio was supposed to advise the Mounties during an ongoing investigation prompted by concerns of B.C.'s privacy commissioner that the provincial government was mismanaging records required for access-to-information requests.
In a report released last month, Elizabeth Denham concluded the government was using such tactics as "triple-deleting" e-mails to thwart requests for material. Ms. Denham said the province either "willfully or negligently" fails to provide documents and evades personal accountability by relying on verbal responses to information requests.
And she recommended the RCMP look at the situation, particularly her view that George Gretes, a former assistant in the Transportation Ministry, did not tell the truth under oath. He was in the spotlight over allegations he deleted e-mails belonging to another staffer that were required to respond to a November, 2014, access-to-information request on missing women linked to the Highway of Tears.
However, Mr. DelBigio is defence counsel in a case involving allegations of Election Act offences by a former Liberal Party worker. The charges in that case relate to political contributions and expenses in a 2012 by-election.
Mr. DelBigio was appointed special prosecutor on Nov. 13, but the criminal justice branch announced it Thursday. Neil MacKenzie, a spokesman for the branch, said in an interview that he could not comment on how the appointment lingered for six days without the issue of potential conflict being addressed before the public announcement of his new posting.
"I don't want to get into detailed issues of the appointment process," he said.
In a statement, the branch acknowledged that "questions were publicly raised" about Mr. DelBigio's situation after the appointment announcement on Thursday morning.
Before the late-afternoon reversal – that Mr. DelBigio was exiting the records file – B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton welcomed the appointment of a special prosecutor.
"When there is an investigation involving government, which this one apparently is, it's certainly not unusual to appoint a special prosecutor. It's better to have a lawyer from outside government in circumstances of this nature," Ms. Anton said in an interview. "Government will be very co-operative and helpful and do whatever we can to aid the investigation."
Premier Christy Clark said last month that she had ordered her cabinet ministers and all political staff to save their e-mails.
She also said she was not familiar with triple-deleting – a practice that removes e-mails from servers so they cannot be swept up in freedom-of-information requests – because e-mail only plays a marginal role in her "face-to-face" style of governing.
The Premier said the ban on deleting e-mails will preserve records pending a requested further review of the situation by former privacy commissioner David Loukidelis to help guide government's next steps on acting within the regulations of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
The government is expecting Mr. Loukidelis' conclusions by Dec. 15, an official said.
John Horgan, the B.C. NDP opposition leader, said Thursday that the "good news" of the special prosecutors' appointment is that the RCMP will be empowered to legally test assumptions in a way they are not normally able to do.
"The appointment of a special prosecutor is to protect the integrity of the system," he told a news conference.