The e-mail records of a close adviser to Ontario's former premier were purged five weeks after a legislative committee ordered the government to release documents in connection with the controversial cancellation of two gas-fired power plants.
Chris Morley, chief of staff to former premier Dalton McGuinty, was directly involved in sensitive settlement talks with TransCanada Corp., the Calgary energy giant that was to build the province's third-largest gas-fired power plant in Oakville.
His e-mail account was permanently deleted shortly after he left Queen's Park, along with those of three other senior staffers in Mr. McGuinty's office, according to documents prepared by his successor's office in response to an appeal of a freedom-of-information request.
The McGuinty government's decision to pull the plug on the two power plants has left the minority Liberals embroiled in an escalating controversy. The Ontario Provincial Police launched a criminal probe Friday into the deletion of government records.
The high cost to taxpayers of scrapping the projects – $585-million at last count – is at the heart of opposition accusations that the government abandoned plans to build the electricity plants in Oakville and Mississauga to save Liberal seats during the 2011 provincial election.
It is not known who gave the order to erase e-mails that could have shed light on the cancelled projects. The documents submitted by Premier Kathleen Wynne's office to an adjudication review officer, including affidavits on the deleted e-mails, are silent on the matter. Mr. McGuinty issued a statement Friday evening saying he neither condoned nor directed the deletion of e-mails, "which ought to have been preserved."
Legislation introduced by his government in 2006 stipulates that records that are a vital part of the province's history must be archived. However, there are no penalties in Ontario for improperly erasing records.
All four former staffers in Mr. McGuinty's office whose e-mails were erased were part of a high-level initiative, codenamed Project Vapour, to manage the fallout from the cancelled Oakville power plant. The group included David Livingston, Mr. Morley's successor as chief of staff.
In a report last week, Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian singled out Mr. Livingston for asking the head of the province's civil service "how to wipe clean the hard drives in the Premier's office" and ensure electronic records were deleted permanently.
Mr. Livingston, now a senior adviser at Toronto law firm Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, did not respond to e-mails and telephone messages from The Globe and Mail.
Ms. Cavoukian said in a recent interview there was no indication Mr. Livingston was operating under anybody's instructions. In fact, she said, there was no formal structure in the former premier's office concerning record keeping.
"It was like they were flying by the seat of their pants," she said.
The documents prepared by Ms. Wynne's office describe the purging of records under her predecessor. Jamie Forrest, an employee in Cabinet Office, says in an affidavit dated Feb. 22 that an employee's e-mail account is "decommissioned and the information contained in the account is purged some time after their departure." Once this happens, her affidavit says, the e-mails cannot be retrieved.
Opposition members at Queen's Park have faced an uphill battle trying to get documents associated with the cancelled gas plants. The e-mail account of Mr. Morley was deleted on June 21, 2012, says Ms. Forrest's affidavit.
The accounts belonging to Jamison Steeve, Mr. McGuinty's former principal secretary, and Sean Mullin, his former deputy director of policy, were deleted on Aug. 17, 2012, her affidavit says. Mr. Steeve and Mr. Mullin were also involved in the TransCanada talks.
In September, 2012, Speaker Dave Levac ruled there is evidence the energy minister had breached his privileges by refusing to release all government documents related to the projects to a legislative committee the previous May.
A dozen e-mails, contained in thousands of pages of correspondence made public last October, just days before Mr. McGuinty resigned, offered a peek into Project Vapour.
The New Democrats filed an FOI that same month, seeking additional records and e-mails relating to Project Vapour. After searching through the e-mail records for 19 individuals, including Mr. McGuinty and his senior staffers, not one single document involving Project Vapour was found, the documents show. The NDP appealed the decision.
"The only conclusion to draw was that they had been destroying these files," Peter Tabuns, the NDP's energy critic, said in an interview.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that an Ontario legislative committee ordered the government to release all documents in connection with the cancellation of two gas-fired power plants. "All" was not correct. Initially, the committee did not request documents from the former premier's office. E-mails of three staffers in the premier's office were purged before the New Democrats sought documents on Project Vapour. A fourth staffer asked how to permanently delete e-mails after the NDP filed a freedom-of-information request.