If you thought there might be some angst inside B.C. Premier Christy Clark's administration over a scathing report that revealed the extent to which potentially incriminating information is regularly cleansed from the government computer system, you would be wrong. Instead, the result of an investigation by the province's Privacy Commissioner into this practice was mostly met by shrugs and smirks initially.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone went so far as to suggest that he will likely not stop the practice of "triple deleting" e-mails, a procedure that permanently scrubs correspondence from the computer system. And he suggested that while Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham might take a dim view of this conduct, her interpretation of the province's information-access laws is not shared by everyone.
She is only the Privacy Commissioner, after all. What would she know?
Ms. Denham was prompted to look into this area after a former Liberal government staff member complained that a superior in the Transportation Ministry office in which they worked took over his computer and triple-deleted e-mails that were subject of an access-to-information request – because he wouldn't.
In the course of her probe, the commissioner found that political aides regularly flouted provincial information-access laws by either permanently eradicating documents that should be kept or by not keeping any written (thus retrievable) records of correspondence related to government decisions.
On this front, the commissioner zeroed in on Ms. Clark's own office. Ms. Denham said the Premier's deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, erased virtually all of her e-mails at the end of every day. And there were others in the Premier's Office just as keen on eliminating any trace of sensitive and potentially politically harmful material, she said.
The focus of the report, however, was a ministerial assistant in Mr. Stone's office: George Gretes. It was Mr. Gretes who is alleged to have grabbed the keyboard of a junior aide in the office, Tim Duncan, and permanently removed e-mails concerning government meetings about the Highway of Tears investigation into murdered and missing women.
Mr. Gretes made problems worse by admittedly lying to Privacy Commission investigators, under oath, about his role in the matter. He resigned this week.
Ms. Denham, meantime, has referred Mr. Gretes's perjury admission to the RCMP, given that it is a potentially criminal matter. The allegation has not been tested in court.
While there is certainly no excuse for not being truthful, I have some sympathy for the 27-year-old Mr. Gretes. Political staffers, most of whom are young and impressionable, do what they're told or do as they're taught. Otherwise, they are fired. They often become easily expendable scapegoats and fall persons for any contretemps. I would suggest that Mr. Gretes knew that if he didn't get rid of those e-mails, his superiors would be all over him for allowing them to get out; for not doing something to get rid of them when he had the chance.
He also knew that getting rid of information that could become the target of an access-to-information request was common practice. As was triple-deleting e-mails. His colleagues did it; heck, cabinet ministers did it.
Once upon a time, Ms. Clark campaigned on the promise to have the most open, transparent government in the country. We now know that was a complete and utter sham, said for the benefit of a gullible public to get votes. The government's record on this front is a disgrace. This is not the first time Ms. Denham has issued a report reprimanding the Clark administration for its efforts to thwart information-access laws, nor will it likely be the last.
The sad fact is that what is happening in B.C. is happening in governments across the country. Important communication is kept away from the prying eyes of the media and public; a lot of it is conducted via text message on private phones, conversations that are outside the grasp of freedom-of-information requests and are easy to erase.
But the degree to which Ms. Clark's government avoided keeping records of discussions around important decisions seems to be without equal.
On Friday, Ms. Clark issued a directive ordering all cabinet ministers and staff to save their e-mails, at least until a government review of Ms. Denham's findings can be completed. She also said she expects those in government to do their best to follow the regulations of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
I'm not holding my breath on that one.
Up until now, being transparent and open is a campaign promise Ms. Clark has been unable to keep.