The B.C. finance minister has joined a growing list of senior provincial officials who either claim they do not use email or who have been caught routinely deleting their emails.
The list is nine names long and includes that of the premier.
On October 26, 2015, Brian Menzies, chief of staff to Finance Minister Mike de Jong, sent an email to Dan Ashton, the ministry’s parliamentary secretary. In it, Menzies explained that he was contacting Ashton in lieu of the minister himself because de Jong did not use that method of communication.
“Minister de Jong does not participate in email,” Menzies wrote, “so I will forward this to you on his behalf.”
That message, included in documents released in response to a freedom-of-information request filed by CKNW, was prompted by an email Menzies had received from Dan Doyle, chief of staff to Premier Christy Clark. It concerned, in turn, a memo Clark's office had sent to ministers and senior staff following the publication days earlier of a damning report by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of B.C. (OIPC).
The October 22 OIPC report slams the Liberal government for failing to adequately create and maintain records. It also singled out specific staff for routinely “triple deleting” emails as a means of permanently destroying records.
Clark responded with a public statement. “The practice of ‘triple-deleting’ will be prohibited, ministers and political staff will continue to retain sent emails and a new policy and specific training will be developed,” she said in a December 16 media release. Clark also said the government would “study and consider the establishment of duty to document”. That refers to the privacy commissioner finding that public officials have a responsibility to record how they make decisions and craft policy.
The premier responded with the October 23 memo about the OIPC report.
“I am further directing my Cabinet Ministers and all political staff, to keep all emails they send, regardless of whether they are transitory or not,” reads a copy obtained via a separate freedom of information request.
Doyle followed up on October 26 with the email sent to Menzies, his cabinet-level counterparts, and the ministers themselves throughout the provincial government. His note accompanying the memo asks that Clark’s order be shared down the line.
“Good afternoon ministers,” it begins. “Please share this memo with your Parliamentary Secretaries and have them confirm that they received it, understand it, and will abide by it.”
Menzies’s message to Ashton followed 15 minutes later. It states de Jong could not relay Clark’s email about how government employees should refrain from deleting emails because de Jong does not use email.
The Ministry of Finance refused to grant an interview for this article.
An explanation that ministry communications director Jamie Edwardson sent to media today (March 7) confirmed that de Jong does not use email.
“Minister de Jong has the longstanding practice of requiring information such as briefing notes, decision notes, memos and other correspondence to be delivered to him through his office on paper, rather than to an email account,” it reads.
“His choice not to receive information or hold conversations by email is a matter of personal preference as a way to manage and prioritize the volume of information his portfolio already entails,” the statement continues.
De Jong’s aversion to the world’s most common form of interoffice communication puts him in good company among Liberal government senior staffers.
On December 16, the Straight reported that the premier herself had essentially stopped using email. Either that or Clark had taken to sending emails and then deleting them, a practice that would contradict the order she delivered to ministers via the October 23 memo.
This evidence of Clark’s reluctance to use email came via another freedom-of-information request that asked for her emails sent from October 19 to 22 and from October 26 to 29, as well as another request for the premier’s emails from a two-week period in December 2014.
The first request turned up just one message. The second produced nothing at all.
When the Straight requested an interview for that story, the premier’s office responded with a statement that supports the accuracy of the Straight’s interpretation of that lack of records.
“The Premier has always been very clear that she conducts her work in cabinet meetings and at events that are open to the public,” confirmed Sam Oliphant, her press secretary at the time.
In a similar vein, the B.C. privacy commissioner’s October report stated that the premier’s deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, was found to be triple deleting emails.
George Gretes, a former ministerial assistant in the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, was found to have done the same, according to the report. He is now under investigation by the RCMP for allegedly giving false testimony about the practice while he was under oath.
The OIPC’s report describes triple deleting this way: “The practice we observed was the routine emptying of the Recover Deleted Items folder to ensure that emails were permanently deleted from an employee’s system. This is not the intention of the Recover Deleted Items folder and for employees managing their mail account it serves no legitimate purpose.”
In addition, Nick Facey, chief of staff to the minister of advanced education, was found to have failed to produce existing records to an extent that the ministry had “contravened its duty” under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act. (This lesser transgression means he is not included in the total number of nine politicians and civil servants mentioned at the top of this article.)
Meanwhile, the Straight reported last October that the B.C. NDP has evidence of missing emails for accounts controlled by Tobie Myers, chief of staff to Rich Coleman—who oversees several ministry portfolios, including liquefied natural gas—as well as the email account of John Dyble, deputy minister to the premier, and that of Stephen Brown, deputy to the provincial health minister.
B.C. NDP leader John Horgan provided more information related to the case of Myers in an October 26 blog post. “New Democrats made a freedom of information request for correspondence in November of 2014 from Tobie Myers...” Horgan wrote. “The request resulted in three emails being released. But newly uncovered message tracking logs showed 800 emails, many of them to key figures in the LNG industry during a period when the B.C. Liberals were finalizing the details of their generational tax giveaway to Petronas.”
An October 27 report by the Vancouver Sun adds details to accusations regarding Dyble and Brown. “The B.C. government claims to have virtually no records from senior officials who oversaw the botched firings of health researchers,” reads the article by Rob Shaw. “The government said it was unable find a single email, memo, briefing note or other correspondence from top officials in the Health Ministry and premier’s office during two years in which it was rocked by the scandal, forced to apologize and launched an outside review.”
Last October, freelance journalist Bob Mackin also shared information with the Straight about another FOI, one that suggests emails were deleted from accounts belonging to Sam Oliphant and Maclean Kay, both of whom worked in the premier’s office as media relations officers during the FOI time period in question.
The FOI request filed by Mackin asked for “All of the inbox, sent, trash, deleted and junk email” for those two accounts for June 22, 2015.
The government’s response: “Although a thorough search was conducted, no records were located in response to your request.”