Premier’s senior staff improperly mass deleted their emails

Premier’s senior staff improperly mass deleted their emails
Premier’s senior staff improperly mass deleted their emails

Several of Premier John Horgan’s top staff improperly deleted all of their sent emails for months, leaving confusion over publicly accessible records during the busy first months of the new NDP government.

The mass deletion, which mirrors the records management controversies of the previous Liberal government, involved at least five officials in Horgan’s office: Kate Van Meer Mass, director of operations; Layne Clark, director of liaison and co-ordination; Suzanne Christensen, assistant deputy minister; Stephanie Papik, director in the deputy minister’s office; and Don Bain, special adviser to the premier.

In each case, all of their sent emails were requested under the Freedom of Information Act for a period of several months and came back with no records found.

For Van Meer Mass, Clark, Christensen and Papik, the time period was for more than three months, from the day the NDP was sworn into power — July 18, 2017, to Oct. 31, 2017. During these months the NDP was transitioning into government and enacting its early fall legislative agenda.

In the case of Bain, who was hired at a later date, the only record returned was the human resources forms he completed to authorize his pay in January 2018.

The premier’s deputy minister and head of the civil service, Don Wright, confirmed the deletions.

“As staff learned their roles and responsibilities, there may have been some instances of best practices not being followed,” Wright said in a statement. “Staff have since received training and are taking a more cautious approach to the management of email.

“While we are not aware of any specific records being handled in a way that violates policy, my office will be reviewing email records for this time period and restore any records if necessary.”

The deleted records are similar to email management problems experienced by the previous Liberal government, which was accused of routinely labelling important documents as “transitory” records and then bulk deleting them. The Liberals were also found to have “triple-deleted” some emails to ensure those records were scrubbed and inaccessible to the public under Freedom of Information.

When it was in opposition in 2015, the NDP tried to get records of emails from then-premier Christy Clark’s chief of staff and deputy chief of staff, only to receive a few heavily-censored emails.

“I think all British Columbians should be concerned when their government hides things from them,” Horgan said at the time, adding it was “inconceivable” any staff would just delete all their emails. “The whole point of having access to information is so we can all make reasonable judgments about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of our political leadership.”

Horgan, now premier, stood in the legislature Monday to argue that, despite mistakes by his staff, “those records do exist on servers” if the public wants to view them.

However, his office later confirmed the archived copies of the deleted emails are not accessible to the public via Freedom of Information requests, citing a decision by the information and privacy commissioner’s office that searching backed up data is too costly and time-consuming to be considered reasonable. They can be recovered only for disaster recovery or in the case of a forensic investigation, legal matter or error.

Liberal MLA and critic Jas Johal chastised the NDP for saying it would be better at email management. “All this shows is they aren’t doing things differently,” he said.

“I think it’s incomprehensible that these staffers coincidentally all erase their emails. Is that what the government wants the people of British Columbia to believe? It does not pass the smell test.”

The minister responsible for Freedom of Information, Jinny Sims, was forced last week to apologize for violating FOI rules by using her personal email address to communicate with ministry staff.