A former provincial employee charged in the Highway of Tears “triple delete” case pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to B.C.’s privacy commissioner.
George Steven Gretes, 28, a former ministerial assistant in B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, admitted making a false statement on July 23 and Sept. 18, 2015, during an inquiry by then-privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
Victoria provincial court Judge Lisa Mrozinski imposed a $2,500 fine.
“It was a silly mistake. It was a stupid lie. It was also unnecessary,” Mrozinski told Gretes.
It was the culmination of a case that B.C.’s opposition New Democrats said revealed a culture in which Liberal government emails were routinely destroyed in an attempt to keep them from being made public. Premier Christy Clark responded to the scandal by ordering an update of government guidelines.
On May 29, 2015, Denham launched a commission of inquiry after Tim Duncan, a former executive assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone, wrote to her complaining about the destruction of records.
Duncan said he had been on the job for only a few weeks in November 2014, when the ministry received a request for records relating to the disappearance of women along northern B.C.’s Highway 16, known as the Highway of Tears. He said he searched his emails, turned up more than a dozen relevant documents and informed Gretes — only to have Gretes tell him to delete the records.
Duncan said Gretes took away his keyboard and deleted the emails, then tripled-deleted the records to completely expunge them from the government system.
Court heard that at the time, there was no prohibition on the practice of triple-deleting.
On July 23, 2015, while under oath, Gretes told investigators he had never triple-deleted emails. In another interview on Sept. 18, after initially denying he had triple-deleted emails, Gretes was confronted with forensic evidence. He then acknowledged he triple-deleted some of his own emails.
Gretes continues to deny he tripled-deleted Duncan’s emails. Court heard that the RCMP did not find any forensic evidence or witnesses to support Duncan’s allegations.
In October 2015, Denham released a report titled Access Denied, which probed the disposal of government documents.
The report found that political staff in Clark’s office and in ministries were routinely destroying government records and violating the province’s access to information laws.
Denham said she uncovered evidence of negligent searches for records, failure to conduct document searches and the wilful destruction of records in response to requests for information.
Gretes resigned from his government job after the release of Denham’s report.
Special prosecutor Mark Jette said Gretes moral culpability was high for lying under oath and prolonging the investigation. He asked Mrozinski to impose the maximum fine of $5,000.
In mitigation, Gretes’ lawyer Chris Considine said his client was inexperienced and had been a government employee for less than two years. Gretes had been shown by an older, experienced staffer how to triple-delete emails. When the issue became public, he was concerned he would get her in trouble “and reluctantly told the investigators he had never triple-deleted.”
Gretes has suffered a great deal of stress due to the media attention. He lost his job and gained 80 pounds this year, said Considine. Since leaving government, he works as a volunteer coaching children in football and competitive rock climbing. He has also repaid the province the cost of legal fees associated with the Commissioner’s investigation.
Mrozinski said she was sentencing Gretes for his dishonesty, not for the triple-deleting.
“It’s significant that you were a ministerial’s assistant, part of the provincial government and there’s a public interest in all government employees being scrupulously honest,” said Mrozinski. “But I know you regret what you did.”
The judge found the aggravating circumstances to be that Gretes was under oath, that his lie extended the inquiry process, and that the lies were prolonged and deliberate.
“You have paid a heavy price for this,” said Mrozinski. “You will carry the stigma of this offence for some time.”
In mitigation, the judge noted that Gretes had no criminal record.
“You are expressing obvious remorse for an unfortunate and completely unnecessary error in judgment,” she said.