Deleting Democracy

The revelation that years of BC cabinet ministers’ e-mails have been deleted has sparked outrage. People should be upset. The suspicious deletion of public records in contravention of document retention laws could be a cover up for fraud, political monkey-wrenching or worse. If the contentious e-mails can’t be found in back-up files, we won’t be able to find out whether key people in Gordon Campbell’s government were directly involved in leaking confidential information about privatizing BC Rail or in overseeing political “dirty tricks” teams. We simply don’t know, and that’s the problem: Government seems to be foiling our ability to oversee its activities.

Campbell’s Liberals should hide their heads in shame, given their promise to be the most open and accountable government in BC history. Instead, the BC Liberals have eroded provincial Freedom of Information rules and consciously disregarded the Document Disposal Act, which requires that all government documents including electronic records be kept for seven years.

Although this story has been more widely publicized, this is not the first time senior Liberal staffers have been caught destroying e-mails. Back in 2003, Ken Dobell, then Deputy Minister to the Premier head of the public service and Campbell’s right hand man, gloated in a speech at the celebration of tenth anniversary of the The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that he didn’t take any notes and deleted all his e-mails immediately. Dogwood Initiative complained to the Information Commissioner, commencing a year long effort to see what Mr. Dobell was trying to hide from the people of BC. More on that in a moment.

Dogwood Initiative learned a lot about governments’ e-mail retention policies. Wiping out all traces of e-mails is not an easy thing to accomplish. It takes a coordinated conscious effort. Someone has to work very hard to eradicate e-mails.

Here is how it works. When government employees send or receive an e-mail that they don’t want to keep, they delete it from the e-mail program on their computer. However, if they want to eradicate all evidence of the e-mail, they need to go further: They then need to go into their personal “deleted items” folder and delete it again. That is because the government server backs up all deleted e-mails at least once and perhaps more often each day.

By double-deleting, government employees like Ken Dobell and the people involved in BCRailGate can get around document retention systems. The retention systems are important as  a record of what employees have been doing, not only for the public record, but for government’s internal management. It is, for example, by searching deleted e-mails that government has tracked down employees using their computers to share pornography and other inappropriate material. That is why the back-up “rolls” are kept for some time (though we don’t know the exact length of time; some reports suggest six months, some longer).

Our investigation of Ken Dobell showed he made the double-delete scheme his standard practice. Dogwood Initiative’s FOI request for all deleted e-mails led to the disclosure of only 13 e-mails between June 5, 2001 and November 26, 2003. Clearly Mr. Dobell was playing fast and loose with BC’s records laws. Unfortunately, at that time the Information and Privacy Commissioner refused to require the government to open its back-up records, or to disclose records in electronic form. The FOI process had fallen behind the technologies of government.

Now, the legal discovery process in the Basi-Virk influence-peddling trial indicates that other BC Liberal cabinet ministers (and senior staff) may have been double-deleting as well. Given this pattern one must question whether this is standard operating procedure.

Unfortunately, this “cover your a**” approach to records isn’t limited to the BC Liberals. Although the BC Liberals appear to have taken document destruction to anew low, the NDP has its skeletons in the closet as well.

On a listserve recently a former NDP cabinet staffer acknowledged the NDP engaged in similar schemes. He said that while he was a Ministerial Assistant under the NDP senior staffers routinely deleted emails in order to avoid having to disclose them if requested under FOI. He also indicated that it was also standard practice to destroy notes and other hard copy papers, even going to the extreme of ripping up or shredding daily notebooks. He also indicated that when dealing with highly volitile information like the BC Rail deal that nothing would be put down on paper.

Document retention and freedom of information laws exist to ensure that the decisions that government makes can be tracked and examined. It appears that BC political parties, regardless of their flowery rhetoric about openness while in opposition, default to secrecy and destroy or hide documents.

The citizens of BC deserve better. We deserve an open and accountable government and rigorous adherence to the laws that promote one. And we deserve an FOI process that is not so easily foiled. The current scandal offers an opportunity for reform of the record-keeping and disclosure laws and process: We encourage you call on your M.L.A.s and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to not only investigate double-deletion, but to work to fix the laws to catch up to the e-mail age.

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