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B.C. refuses to uncloak secret office

Worries of criminal threats trump calls to reveal employees' names

The B.C. government is defending a decision to keep secret the names of employees who work in its civil forfeiture office.

The move, highlighted in the government's response to a recent Freedom of Information request, is necessary because the employees could be targeted by criminals whose property they have seized in a civil forfeiture case, said the Justice Ministry.

The office, created in 2006, has seized $28 million in proceeds from criminal activity, including items such as cars, helicopters, houses and cash.

It frequently focuses on gangs and is currently in court attempting to seize millions in land and money from an Osoyoos man it alleges is connected to drug activity involving the Hells Angels.

But critics say it is unprecedented for the provincial government to cloak an entire ministry branch in such secrecy.

Documents posted to the government's Open Information website reveal it rejected a recent FOI request for the name of the civil forfeiture director, that person's background, a list of employee names and the organizational structure of the office.

The government used sections of the FOI law that allow it to withhold information that could endanger a law enforcement agency or violate a person's privacy.

The FOI request "gives rise to security concerns, since the requester and his or her motive is unknown," the Justice Ministry said in a statement.

Assistant deputy justice minister Lynda Cavanaugh agreed to release the name of civil forfeiture director Rob Kroeker, after questions by the Times Colonist this week. Not doing so originally was an "overly cautious" move by a bureaucrat, Cavanaugh said.

Kroeker's name has been public for years because he frequently does media interviews as the director.

The identity of the office's other six employees remains confidential on the advice of RCMP and security experts, Kroeker said in an interview. That confidentiality has existed since the office was first created, he said.

"The more information provided about us, the more it increases the risk," Kroeker said.

Staff have been threatened before, and unknown people have raised security concerns by previously requesting personal information using FOI, he said.

Still, the secrecy is highly unusual for the government, critics say.

"I've never seen this before," said Michael Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

"I can't think of a claim like this that has ever applied to another government body as sweepingly."

Government Crown prosecutors, judges and most police officers routinely have their names, salaries and other information disclosed by their organizations.

"I'm not sure what the civil forfeiture people have to be afraid of," said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information Association.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything like this since MI5, the British secret service, went public. It used to be you could never publicly mention who the director of MI5 was, and that's been gone for decades."

A 2010 ruling by B.C.'s privacy commissioner said only certain undercover police officers, and not all employees of a law enforcement agency, can keep their identities secret under FOI law, Gogolek said. Even then, an agency has to prove harm might occur.

"They have to come up with something other than saying, 'Oh, sometimes we deal with nasty people who say bad things about us, or we think they might not like us,' " Gogolek said.

Kroeker rejected suggestions the secrecy means his office lacks transparency. Its annual budget - which is self-sustaining using proceeds from crime - is fully public, he said, and employee pay and expenses are published even if the name and title of the employees are incomplete.

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