Political staff in Premier Christy Clark’s office and in ministries have been routinely destroying government records and violating the province’s access to information law, a new report says.
Privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham said Thursday she uncovered evidence of negligent searches for records, failures to document searches and the “wilful destruction” of records in response to requests for information.
Denham said “it is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the problems” or the threat they pose to the integrity of access to information in B.C.
“I am deeply disappointed by the practices our investigation uncovered,” she writes in the 65-page report, Access Denied. “I would have expected that staff in ministers’ offices and in the office of the premier would have a better understanding of records management and their obligation to file, retain and provide relevant records when an access request is received.
“In conducting this investigation, it has become clear that many employees falsely assume that emails are impermanent and transitory, and therefore of little value.”
Denham launched the investigation in May after Tim Duncan, a former executive assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone, wrote to her complaining about the destruction of records.
Duncan said in the letter that he had been on the job only for a few weeks in November 2014 when the ministry received a request for records relating to the disappearance of women along Highway 16, known as the Highway of Tears. He said he searched his emails, turned up more than a dozen relevant documents and informed ministerial assistant George Gretes, who told Duncan to delete the records.
"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 said in his letter to Denham.
Duncan said Gretes “triple deleted” the records to completely expunge them from the government system.
Gretes denied the allegations.
When the story surfaced in the legislature in May, the government’s communications staff portrayed Duncan as a disgruntled ex-employee.
But after multiple interviews under oath and a review of forensic evidence, Denham concluded that “it is more likely than not” that Duncan was right and that Gretes deleted the records.
Denham said she found Duncan to be a “credible witness” and that, on a balance of probabilities, his account was truthful.
“In contrast, I did not find Mr. Gretes to be a reliable witness,” she said. “He admitted to giving false testimony under oath, and aspects of his testimony was contradicted by other evidence."
Denham said the matter has been referred to the RCMP to investigate possible offences, including Gretes’ alleged failure to tell the truth under oath.
Gretes, who was suspended with pay during Denham’s investigation, resigned Thursday, the government said.
“It is government’s clear expectation that all government staff follow all legislation without exception,” said Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk.
Victoria lawyer Chris Considine, who is representing Gretes, declined comment.
The RCMP confirmed receipt of Denham’s report. “We will be reviewing the content of their report and assessing it with respect to possible Criminal Code offences,” Staff Sgt. Rob Vermeulen, a media relations officer, said in a statement. “It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time, as the review process has just begun.”
Duncan, who now lives in Alberta, said in a telephone interview that he felt vindicated by Denham’s report.
He voiced concern, however, that the provincial government appears to be making a scapegoat of Gretes instead of acknowledging that the problems exist across ministries.
“I suspect the vast majority of offices are doing these types of things,” he said. “And to just punish one person for that just didn’t seem right to me when everyone else is doing the same thing.”
In a second case, Denham found that the chief of staff in the Ministry of Advanced Education violated the province’s freedom of information law by failing to release about 20 relevant emails in response to an access request.
“The chief of staff’s explanation for why he did not produce these emails demonstrated, at best, a negligent search for responsive records,” Denham wrote.
Finally, in a third case, Denham found that Clark’s office uses a “verbal process” for processing access requests that results in delays and lost records.
She concluded that Clark’s deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, violated the law by using a “broad interpretation of transitory records” that resulted in the “permanent deletion of almost all emails she sent in the course of her work.”
NDP Leader John Horgan called it “inconceivable” that Cadario deleted all her emails. “It strikes me that Ms. Denham has done very good work to expose a culture of deception. Delete, delete, delete. Deny, deny, deny.”
Denham called for Clark’s office to change its ways, process requests in a timely manner and keep a written record of how each request is processed.
She also recommended that the government stop employees from permanently deleting emails, keep a lasting record of email accounts, and institute mandatory training in records management — including training in whether records are transitory.
Denham repeated her previous calls for the government to bring in “duty-to-document” legislation that requires the government to keep records of key actions and decisions.
Virk said former privacy commissioner David Loukidelis has been hired to advise the government on how to respond to the report and improve staff training. Other recommendations have been referred to a committee reviewing the province’s freedom of information law.
He said the premier’s office has pledged to strengthen its process of documenting and tracking access requests. “Our government remains committed to being as open and transparent as possible,” Virk said.