The Fall Guy

The BC government’s email retention policy (delete it all, whenever possible) was briefly back in the news last week as a BC Liberal staffer was brought up on charges:

George Steven Gretes has been charged with two counts of wilfully making false statements to mislead, or attempt to mislead, under the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
CBC News

The Fall Guy

Sometimes, taking one for the team really means taking one for the team. But it’s important to remember that, however personally reprehensible Gretes’ actions were, his behaviour is just the tip of the ethical iceberg when it come to the current governments’ attitude towards record keeping.

It has been obvious for years that the government has a deliberate policy of poor management of digital records, and that there is a strong desire in high places to keep that policy in place. Gretes is not an isolated figure, he’s just the only person foolish and unlucky enough to be caught in deliberate law-breaking, instead of quietly taunting the public from the grey area.

Right in the middle of the exposure of Mr. Gretes’ actions last fall, the Opposition brought forward more evidence that political staffers routinely destroy records:

What we did last November is we asked for information pertaining to any e-mails from the chief of staff to the Minister of Natural Gas, Tobie Myers. Ms. Myers, of course, at the time we asked, was in discussions with people within the sector about legislation that was going to be before this House. What we got back from that request for information over a three-week period were three e-mails, just three.

It was curious to us that there would only be three e-mails in existence coming from the minister’s office over a three-week period, when flagship legislation was being tabled. So we asked for the message-tracking documents from the Minister of Citizens’ Services.

We determined through that route … that Ms. Myers sent 800 e-mails over that three-week period. So 797 triple deletes is a whole lot of triple deletes.

In those 800 e-mails, there were e-mails sent to Mr. Spencer Sproule, who may be familiar to members on this side. He used to work in the Premier’s office as her issue management director. He now, of course, is the chief spokesperson for Petronas, the lead agency looking at natural gas here in British Columbia.

Jared Kuehl, the head deputy of government relations at Shell; Neil Mackie, from AltaGas; and right to the minister’s office in Ottawa — 800 e-mails, and we got three.

My question is to the minister of openness and transparency in B.C. Liberal–land. Can he explain how it is that when we asked for 800, we only got three?

— John Horgan, Leader of the Opposition, Oct 26, 2015

The usual excuses are rolled out every time: the emails are “transitory” or they are filed “elsewhere”. Except these emails were from a high ranking Natural Gas ministry staffer to highly placed members of the industry! Transitory? Really? These were all just making plans to get coffee, 800 times?

The Information and Privacy Commissioner noted the same pattern in records keeping by the Premier’s Deputy Chief of Staff.

The Deputy Chief of Staff stated that her practice was to delete emails from her Sent Items folder on a daily basis and if all emails in that folder were of a transitory nature, she would delete all of them. Her evidence was that her Deleted Items folder was set to purge at the end of each day when she exited Microsoft Outlook.
— p50, Access Denied, OIPC, Oct 22, 2015

George Gretes must be quietly eating his liver, to be prosecuted for actions that he knows his former colleagues engage in every single day in their offices at the highest levels of government.

But that’s what it means to be the fall guy. The public thinks little of you because you were venal enough to do the crime. Your former friends think litle of you because you were stupid enough to get caught.

“It’s done. Now you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
George Gretes, on illegally deleting the target of an FOI request