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Canada Special computer access for McGuinty’s chief of staff broke security rules, trial told

David Livingston, chief of staff to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, arrives at court in Toronto on Sept. 22, 2017.

Colin N. Perkel/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Giving Dalton McGuinty's chief of staff access to multiple computers in the premier's office violated Ontario government security protocol because it allowed him to go into the records of other employees, a criminal trial has heard.

Thomas Stenson, who was manager of technology services for the former premier's office, testified on Thursday that he was concerned about the risks associated with giving the special access to David Livingston, the chief of staff. "From a security standpoint," he said, "it breaks the protocol by allowing people to access other people's data on the computer."

Mr. Stenson, who is now retired, was the second witness to testify in court at Toronto's Old City Hall that the request for access to all 80-90 computers in the premier's office came from David Nicholl, the province's corporate chief information officer.

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"This was a very unusual request," Mr. Stenson testified. "It was so out of the ordinary."

Mr. Livingston and former deputy chief of staff Laura Miller face criminal breach of trust and mischief charges in connection with the destruction of e-mails and other government records related to the controversial cancellation of two gas-fired power plants before the 2011 provincial election. Each has pleaded not guilty.

The charges stem from police allegations that Mr. Livingston hired a non-government IT expert, Ms. Miller's spouse, Peter Faist, to "wipe clean" computer hard drives in the Premier's Office just days before Mr. McGuinty stepped down in February, 2013.

A total of 632,000 files were permanently deleted from 20 computers in the premier's office, prosecution and defence lawyers have said in an agreed statement presented in court. Of the total, 400 files were created by staff in the office, the statement says. A single file can contain from one document to thousands.

Mr. Stenson's testimony was crucial in shedding light on how Mr. Livingston obtained the special access in January, 2013, during the transition from Mr. McGuinty to Premier Kathleen Wynne. Peter Wallace, secretary of cabinet at the time, approved special access for Mr. Livingston – as the province's top civil servant, he was the only one authorized to do so – but Mr. Nicholl set the process in motion, court was told.

Mr. Stenson said this was the first time during his 27 years working for the Ontario Public Service that anyone had ever requested access to the entire computer infrastructure in any government office.

Under questioning from prosecution lawyer Ian Bell, Mr. Stenson described events on Jan. 30, 2013, when Mr. Nicholl met with him and Rolf Gitt, who provided IT services for the premier's office at the time, to request access to all of the computers in the premier's office.

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After the meeting, Mr. Stenson said he gathered together his technical staff, including Mr. Gitt, and "we mapped out how we might proceed with this."

Scott Hutchison, a lawyer for Ms. Miller, asked Mr. Stenson during cross examination why he did not protest and say giving someone access to multiple computers would be a "disaster."

Mr. Stenson responded that he had been instructed by Mr. Nicholl, the most senior person in the government's IT group, to "set up what needs to happen" to make the access available. "Mr. Nicholl said, 'I will tell you when to pull the trigger later,'" he said.

Mr. Gitt, who is now technical team lead in Ontario's data centre operations, testified on Wednesday that because he was not dealing with a standard request, he had to ask an IT official responsible for the entire government for help.

The testimony of both Mr. Stenson and Mr. Gitt regarding the request for access to multiple computers contradicted Mr. Nicholl's version of events. In his testimony at the trial, Mr. Nicholl said he did not know the difference between administrative rights for an individual computer or a group of computers.

Mr. Nicholl was not questioned during his testimony on whether he asked Mr. Gitt to set up the access, but according to police documents, he told officers: "That conversation was never held."

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Mr. McGuinty is not under investigation and has co-operated with the probe.

The trial continues on Friday.

Ontario's Liberal government is embroiled in a scandal over the closure of two power plants in the Greater Toronto Area. As hearings continue into the costs of the closures, The Globe's online politics editor Chris Hannay explains the history of the scandal. Globe and Mail Update
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