Story updated with comments from Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian at 3:57 PM ET.
Ontario’s top government leaders and their staff should be bound by law to ensure records are maintained for the public interest, Ontario’s Privacy and Information Minister Ann Cavoukian said in her annual report released Tuesday.
Recommendations for changes to enforce more consequences on government officials that fail to retain records or intentionally delete digital files follow the commissioner’s investigation into government offices in 2013. Both the Premier’s office and former Minister of Energy’s office were investigated for deleting emails related to the relocation of two gas plants originally destined for Oakville and Mississauga.
“It’s just unthinkable the government could stoop to such levels,” Cavoukian says in a phone interview. “Nobody trusts government any more. That’s so sad.”
As part of that investigation, the commissioner’s office interviewed the chief of staff at the Minister of Energy’s office. He said it was normal practice to routinely delete all emails because he wanted to maintain a “clean inbox” policy. But the commissioner wasn’t buying it.
“It was difficult to accept that the routine deletion of emails was not, in fact, an attempt to avoid transparency and accountability in relation to his work,” the report states. “I had trouble accepting this practice was simply part of a benign attempt to efficiently manage one’s email accounts.”
In a phone interview, Cavoukian was even more direct. “Give me a break, this guy doesn’t have a minute to breathe and he’s worried about his inbox policy?” she said.
The commissioner later found the chief of staff to the former Premier also had a approach to deleting emails. When the investigation attempted to recover the emails, it was told by the Ministry of Government Services that was impossible. Since then, a forensic investigation was conducted and some emails were retrieved about the issue. The Ontario Police are also investigating the Liberal Party over the matter.
That lack of access to government records means two violations of law took place, Cavoukian states in the report; the Archives and Recordkeeping Act (ARA) and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).
To avoid this happening again, she’s making four recommendations to government:
- New legislative duty for political staff to document business-related activities and retain records subject to freedom of information request. The intentional destruction of records should be prohibited and made an offense.
- Changes be made to the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection Privacy Act (MFIPPA) so that details about councillor’s travel, hospitality, and other expenses are publicly accessible.
- Government-awarded contracts should be disclosed routinely and proactively. The provincial government should provide clarity around the Acts being used to deny access to contracts.
- Both FIPPA and MFIPPA are more than 20 years old and in need of an update. They must reflect the growth of the Internet and the realities of the “information era.”