Les Leyne: Deputy ministers follow email trail

When the deputy ministers file their report on the ethnic-outreach scandal, it will be interesting to see which version of the smoking gun they relied on.

The key piece of evidence — so far — is a 17-page outline of the strategy, which was leaked by someone to the Opposition.

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It was in the form of an email that was forwarded from Premier Christy Clark’s former deputy chief of staff Kim Haakstad, who resigned after it came to light. And that email is from her personal account, and to the personal accounts of all the other staff involved in the strategy.

That was obviously an attempt to keep the controversial plan on the down-low. But Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham pointed something out in passing this week, while reporting on the B.C. Liberals’ tendency to clam up on freedom-of-information requests.

It doesn’t matter which email account is used. If government business is included in the content, it’s still supposed to be subject to the law.

So it will be telling to see if the deputies manage to retrieve their own copy of the email. If that doesn’t come out in the report, Denham may go looking for it on her own.

She is collecting information on how the documentation involving the ethnic-outreach program was handled. She said there is no formal investigation underway at this point. But there’s the potential for one.

Denham said it’s generally a “poor practice” to use personal email accounts for government business. She wants the definition of transitory records — inconsequential notes that don’t involve policy — clarified.

Her report wasn’t about personal email accounts. It was about a growing statistical tendency for people who make FOI requests to get nothing but blank pages back, with a note that there are “no responsive records.”

The percentage of such replies has almost doubled — to 25 per cent — in the last four years. And it was the last big investigation in the premier’s office that contributed to Denham’s decision to flag the issue.

That was the probe into former chief of staff Ken Boessenkool’s conduct last summer in a downtown bar. He behaved inappropriately toward a female government staff member during a party there.

He later resigned, and when requests for information on the investigation were made, nothing turned up. It turns out the investigation was all “verbal.”

The only public record was his resignation letter, which was released.

In a fluke of timing, Denham’s report was issued a few days after Haakstad resigned.

And Haakstad was one of the key people Denham interviewed in preparing her report.

As deputy chief of staff several weeks before her resignation, she told the commissioner the general practice in the premier’s office is to communicate verbally, in person.

Emails are usually just requests to call or meet in person.

Staff members don’t generally make substantive communication relating to business via email. Most of them are transitory in nature and deleted once a permanent record — like a calendar entry — is created.

Haakstad told Denham there would have been emails between her and Boessenkool while he was being investigated for his personal conduct, but they would have been transitory and were deleted before the requests for information were made.

Denham also interviewed Public Service Agency head Lynda Tarras.

Tarras told Denham there was no communication of any kind between her agency and Boessenkool. Her office did not create any records responsive to the requests and Boessenkool accepted responsibility for his actions and resigned.

Tarras is one of the four officials investigating the ethnic-outreach program. The thinking is that there will be a lot more formal communication.

Denham found a marked increase in the number of people striking out when it comes to making FOI requests of the premier’s office, but she didn’t identify any particular reason.

Clark told the legislature it’s because people are including her office in requests to multiple departments, and her office simply doesn’t have the information.

Whatever the case, it’s a safe bet emails are getting the kid-glove treatment in the premier’s office, while nervous staff await the outcome of the deputies’ probe.

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