Back in October, the BC Information and Privacy Commissioner released a scathing report on the destruction of email records related to missing women on the Highway of Tears.
This was the result of an investigation initiated after a former executive assistant to BC’s Minister of Transportation wrote the Commissioner a letter stating that he was ordered by another staffer—former ministerial assistant George Gretes—to “triple-delete” records responsive to a Freedom of Information request. The Commissioner investigated, and found that the ministry did indeed contravene the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) in ways that seriously “threaten the integrity of access to information in British Columbia.” Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said “It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the problems my office discovered.”
No charges were laid for the deletion of the now-unrecoverable Highway of Tears records—a shortcoming of the current FOI regime with which the Commissioner, FIPA, and a number of other groups have taken issue—but on March 11th, Gretes was charged for giving false testimony under oath during the investigation. Denham’s report summarizes this discovery:
After initially testifying under oath that he did not engage in the practise of “triple deleting” emails, George Gretes ultimately admitted that he did in fact engage in this practice.
The Commissioner has referred this case to the RCMP for investigation, including Gretes’ failure to tell the truth under oath.
The Criminal Justice Branch originally announced Gretes’ court date as April 20th, but that has since been rescheduled to June 1st – a date that, as journalist Bob Mackin noted, falls after the scheduled end of the spring sitting of BC’s Legislature.
While it is good to see that Gretes will have to face justice for willfully making false statements to attempt to mislead the Information and Privacy Commissioner, we remain severely disappointed that there are no legal consequences for improper destruction of email records.
The Government Information Act, passed only one year ago, changed the law in a way that eliminated penalties for government staff who improperly destroy documents.
FIPA, among others, has been calling on the government to not only re-introduce these penalties, but to also create a positive “duty to document” government decisions and actions. And we appear to have British Columbians’ support: An Ipsos poll commissioned by FIPA and released in February shows that 96% of British Columbians believe it is important that government officials be legally required to keep accurate, complete records of what they do on the job. A further 84% think government officials who interfere with access to information rights should face penalties (with 12% stating they don’t know).
The deletion of the Highway of Tears email records is not a case of “one bad apple”; it is a serious escalation of the growing—and deeply disturbing—trend of government avoiding its legal obligation to release information.
Gretes will face penalties for false testimony, but the real crime is that there are no charges for the improper destruction of records.