Thursday, June 25, 2009

 

Vanished e-mails undermine trial

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A CanWest newspaper is turning against the Campbell Government?
Times Colonist editorial - June 25, 2009

The apparent loss of four years of provincial cabinet e-mails strikes a blow at any notion that the B.C. Liberals see the need to be accountable for their actions.

The destruction of all provincial cabinet e-mails from 2001 through 2005 was revealed in B.C. Supreme Court this week, as part of the trial of three former government employees in a corruption case. The charges against them were laid in the wake of police raids on the legislature in December 2003.

Two weeks ago, defence lawyers sought the disclosure of e-mail records of several members of cabinet and Premier Gordon Campbell. In response, a lawyer for the executive council said the e-mails were not recoverable.

That e-mails written by cabinet ministers on key issues could have been deleted is almost unbelievable. The government has an obligation, after all, to retain important records. To that end, it backs up its electronic data, including e-mails, on servers housed in at least two locations in Greater Victoria.

If these cabinet e-mails are truly gone, that means there was a concerted effort to get rid of them. And that effort would have been made after the legislature raid and after the three men were charged. It would be hard to imagine that cabinet ministers did not discuss the central issue in the case, the $1-billion sale of B.C. Rail to Canadian National, either before or after the raid.

The e-mails might have provided information that would help the accused argue their case -- or that might have undermined their defence. The e-mails might have made politicians look wise or foolish. We will never know, because the evidence is gone.

Campbell says that all records that should have been kept under government laws, have been retained.

That provides no consolation, because the potential value of these records should have been noted by the government. Preserving them, rather than destroying them, should have been the priority.

The Document Disposal Act requires that electronic records be kept for seven years, unless they are purely temporary, such as a confirmation of a lunch date. We don't expect that every e-mail written or received by 30,000 government employees would need to be saved for future reference.

But cabinet e-mails reflect the reasoning of the most powerful people in the provincial government. These documents could have provided valuable background information that would give context for the actions of ministers. They could have made a huge difference in the court case as well.

The government has systems that allow the retention of records. All government employees -- and especially cabinet members -- need to be aware of them, as well as the need to retain documents that might be needed in a few months or a few decades.

What's gone is gone, unless backups can be found. But the government needs to ensure that other vital documents are not destroyed under its watch.

If cabinet communications, especially those potentially relevant to an ongoing criminal case, are not deemed worthy of retention, what is? And, more importantly, what else has been electronically shredded by the Campbell administration?

The full Times Colonist editorial is HERE.


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