High-ranking Ontario political staffers improperly erased documents that could have shed light on the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants, obliterating potential evidence in the most serious scandal to envelop the Liberals' minority administration.
What's more, the offices of former premier Dalton McGuinty and his energy minister did not follow transparency legislation the Liberals had brought in, and had no protocol for saving records on government decisions.
The offences, revealed in a report by Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, do not by themselves carry a penalty but could set the stage for contempt of parliament proceedings against those involved.
"It is difficult to accept that the routine deletion of e-mails was not in fact an attempt by staff in the former Minister's office to avoid transparency and accountability in relation to their work," Ms. Cavoukian wrote. "I do not need to emphasize how disturbing the intentional deletion of government business records is in a free and democratic society."
Government House Leader John Milloy pledged to sit down with Ms. Cavoukian to address the problems she raised. The Liberals will ensure staffers preserve documents, he said. But he could not explain why they had not been doing so before.
"I can't comment on the specifics of what happened in the former premier's office. I wasn't there," Mr. Milloy said. "We're going to make sure, though, that it never happens again."
The Liberals pulled the plug on the unpopular plants, in Mississauga and Oakville, in what was widely seen as a play to save area candidates from defeat in the 2011 election. That move is estimated to have cost the public purse $585-million. Even though the cancellations and the deletion of e-mails occurred before Kathleen Wynne became Premier, the scandal is dogging her government.
NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns called in Ms. Cavoukian to investigate after the former energy minister's office professed not to have any documents related to the power-plant cancellations.
She found two chiefs of staff – David Livingston, who ran Mr. McGuinty's office, and Craig MacLennan, who worked for two energy ministers and played a key role on the power plant file – deleted all their e-mails.
Shortly before Mr. McGuinty stepped down this year, Mr. Livingston also asked 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.
Under the Archives and Recordkeeping Act, which Mr. McGuinty's government brought in seven years ago, the offices of the premier and ministers are required to save documents and turn them over for archiving. But Ms. Cavoukian's report found neither Mr. McGuinty's staff nor the then-ministers of energy's offices had procedures to make sure they did this.
When Mr. Livingston made his request to the head of the civil service, he was told to ensure electronic records were preserved and handed to the bureaucracy before erasing them. But, Ms. Cavoukian said, he told her he did not remember if anyone saved the documents.
Mr. MacLennan, according to the report, told Ms. Cavoukian that he deleted e-mails to keep his inbox tidy and did not realize he was obliged to save them.
"The fact that any member of a minister's political staff would think it appropriate to delete all e-mail records ... is, quite frankly, unbelievable. It is also a matter of great concern," she wrote.
Former energy minister Brad Duguid, who was Mr. MacLennan's boss during part of the period in question, said he did not know anyone was deleting e-mails. Asked who was to blame for his office breaking transparency rules, he said: "I don't think it's fair, necessarily, to point fingers in that way."
But the opposition parties called for consequences. "There has to be a change – a law that has penalties for the destruction of documents," Mr. Tabuns said.
Progressive Conservative Rob Leone said: "This is a cover-up. The government wants to hide the truth from the people of Ontario."
The record-keeping legislation itself does not set out penalties for those who violate it. However, the committee is considering whether members of the government were in contempt of parliament for refusing to turn over gas plant-related documents. If that is found to be the case, the matter would go to a vote in the legislature, which could decide to mete out punishment.