Vancouver Sun: Highway of Tears internal records deliberately deleted, says B.C.’s privacy commissioner

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October 22, 2015 | Rob Shaw | Vancouver Sun 

A political staffer in Transportation Minister Todd Stone’s office deliberately deleted internal records about the Highway of Tears to prevent them from becoming public, and then lied about it to investigators, says B.C.’s privacy commissioner.

George Gretes, a former ministerial assistant to Stone, is now under RCMP investigation for lying under oath to Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Gretes has resigned, after being suspended with pay for five months.

Denham said Thursday she’s referred his case directly to the Mounties.

The RCMP said Thursday it has received Denham’s report and is “assessing it with respect to possible Criminal Code offenses.”

Denham released a scathing investigative report into the improperly deleted records Thursday, which outlined a litany of violations to rules, policies and B.C.’s FOI law.

It also validated complaints of whistleblower Tim Duncan, who went public in May with allegations he was pressured by Gretes to delete emails while working in Stone’s office so that they couldn’t be captured and released to the public through an FOI request.

Duncan had said when he refused, Gretes physically took away his computer keyboard and deleted the records himself.

“I found Mr. Duncan to be a credible witness and that, on a balance of probabilities, his account of the events of Nov. 19, 2014 was truthful,” Denham said in a news release Thursday.

“In contrast, I did not find Mr. Gretes to be a reliable witness. He admitted to giving false testimony under oath, and other aspects of his testimony (were) contradicted by other evidence,” said Denham.

Denham said that after one of the most resource-intensive and technical investigations her office has ever undertaken, she concluded “that it is more likely than not that the email records were in fact deleted by ministerial assistant George Gretes.”

Gretes eventually admitted he lied after his computer underwent a forensic examination, but not before repeatedly lying several times about when and how the events happened, who was involved and why it was done, Denham noted.

The deleted emails and documents related to how the B.C. government consulted with northern communities and First Nations leaders last year to try to improve safety along the Highway of Tears.

First Nations leaders remain unhappy at government inaction to improve transportation and safety issues on a road where women have gone missing and been murdered.

Duncan had said he wasn’t sure what specifically was contained in the emails because they were deleted so quickly.

“In the course of this investigation, we uncovered negligent searches for records, a failure to keep adequate email records, a failure to document searches, and the willful destruction of records responsive to an access request,” said Denham. “Taken together, these practices threaten the integrity of access to information in British Columbia.”

Denham’s report also zeroed in on Premier Christy Clark’s deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, noting that she keeps almost none of her emails

“The commissioner found that the broad interpretation given to transitory records by the deputy chief of staff, which results in her retaining almost no sent emails, effectively frustrates the Office of the Premier’s ability to comply with (section six, subsection one) of FIPPA (the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act),” wrote Denham in her report.

Denham also found problems involving FOI requests in the Ministry of Advanced Education, after an FOI request for all the emails from the minister’s chief of staff during a time period in 2014 found no responsive records, when in fact there were 435 pages of records eventually released by the minister.

Denham made 11 recommendations in her report, including implementing technology that would stop employees from permanently deleting emails, as well as improved training and a change to the FOI law that makes a duty to document records and implements sanctions for staff who don’t comply.

Denham refused interviews Thursday, saying that because the case has been referred to the RCMP she cannot comment.

Premier Christy Clark appointed former B.C. privacy commissioner David Loukidelis to review the report and figure out how to address the recommendations.

Technology Minister Amrik Virk said Thursday the government takes the FOI act seriously and has processed hundreds of thousands of pages in requests properly over the years.

Virk said he intends to refer some of Denham’s recommendations to the select standing committee of the legislature that is currently reviewing the FOI act.

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