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Ex-employee says it’s routine for B.C. government to destroy emails

The B.C. government’s political appointees routinely destroy emails to avoid releasing them to the public under the province’s Freedom of Information law, an ex-employee says.
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A former Transportation Ministry employee says he was asked to destroy emails that were part of an Freedom of Information request.

The B.C. government’s political appointees routinely destroy emails to avoid releasing them to the public under the province’s Freedom of Information law, an ex-employee says.

Tim Duncan, who worked as an executive assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone, claims he was told to destroy emails following an FOI request last year. When he hesitated, a more senior official in the minister’s office destroyed them for him, he says.

“I want to stress that this is not an isolated incident,” he wrote in a May 18 letter to Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “It is my belief that the abuse of the Freedom of Information process is widespread and most likely systemic within the [Premier Christy] Clark government.”

Denham confirmed that she has launched an investigation into the “serious allegations.”

Duncan, who gave the NDP a copy of his letter, stated in an email to the party that he left the government “cesspool” in March and returned to Calgary.

The government said he was fired and painted him as a disgruntled ex-employee.

But NDP Leader John Horgan said it’s more likely the government “moved him along” when he balked at questionable practices.

Horgan said Duncan’s letter confirms Opposition suspicions that “it is standard operating procedure for B.C. Liberals to remove documents rather than to share them with the public.”

The NDP has highlighted previous cases where the Liberals have claimed no records existed on important issues, only to have the same documents turn up elsewhere.

“They’re not telling people the truth,” Horgan said.

Stone said it was the first he had heard of Duncan’s allegations.

“I want to be very clear that, as a minister, I expect the staff who work in my office to adhere 100 per cent to the requirements of the applicable legislation,” he said.

Duncan said he had been working as an executive assistant in the Ministry of Transportation for a few weeks in November when it received a request for records relating to the disappearance of women along Highway 16, known as the Highway of Tears.

Duncan said he searched his email and turned up more than a dozen relevant documents. He informed an official in the minister’s office and was told to delete them. “When I hesitated, he took away my keyboard, deleted the emails and returned the keyboard, stating, ‘It’s done. Now you don’t have to worry about it anymore,’ ” Duncan writes.

The government said Thursday that the official has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of Denham’s investigation.

In early January, Duncan, who moved from the ministry to caucus research, said he questioned a different superior about the practice of deleting emails following an FOI request.

“She too brushed off my concerns, explaining, ‘It’s like in the [TV show] West Wing. You do whatever it takes to win.’ ”

Duncan said government officials told him in mid-March that “it wasn’t working out” and gave him severance pay.

“Was I fired?” he asked. “Did I resign? Somewhere in between.”

But he denied that’s what motivated him to come forward. He said his father was killed in a domestic-violence incident in 2010 and he was troubled by the B.C. government’s treatment of families whose daughters have disappeared along the Highway of Tears. “They’re not getting a fair deal,” he said. “We’re deleting all this stuff; the government’s claiming we’re not and I feel for the families, and I understand how they feel.”

In response to NDP questions in the legislature, Clark said the government has clear rules about what documents should be kept. She said many documents are considered transitory, which means they can be destroyed. However, when an FOI request is received, even transitory records have to be retained.

Duncan said political staff are classifying most documents as transitory in order to justify deleting them. “The big joke was, ‘Well, everything’s transitory for us. So we keep nothing.’ ”

lkines@timescolonist.com