No filing system is perfect. Especially when it might reveal a huge scandal for the provincial Liberal government.
I’m hoping much of this is already ancient news to you. But based on the relatively subdued way BC’s mainstream media has been covering the story as Focus is going to print, I’m not counting on it.
You should have heard about it, though, because the story reveals a whole new depth of corruption in our provincial government for which it is literally difficult to find words.
In 2003, the BC legislature was raided by the RCMP, amidst accusations of bribery, leaks of confidential information, and links to organized crime during the Liberal’s BC Rail privatization.
What’s happened since? Various charges were laid against ministerial aides David Basi and Bob Virk and communications aide Aneal Basi. Then, we went through two re-elections of the BC Liberals with essentially nothing happening. The government has stalled defence requests for information so much the case hasn’t even made it to trial yet and media interest has dissipated.
Generally, lawyers for the former ministerial aides have been arguing that the accused were simply following government orders. To help establish that, they years ago requested copies of all the emails of senior government officials discussing the BC Rail deal. However, this June 23, government lawyer George Copley announced in BC Supreme Court: All emails to and from Premier Gordon Campbell, all elected cabinet ministers and their senior staff from 2001-2005 had been lost.
Since very few media even picked up this incredible story, I couldn’t believe I was understanding it correctly. But defence lawyer Michael Bolton and Mark Hume of The Globe and Mail, the only reporter in court that day and the only one who has been continually covering all of the proceedings, both confirmed it to me. (See Globe coverage here and here and here and here and here. See also here.)
“The [government lawyer’s] statement made in court left no doubt that the emails had been destroyed,” Hume said. “What was said in court was pretty clear: ‘There are back-up [digital] tapes, they’re kept thirteen months, and that’s it. And we can’t retrieve these emails.'”
Hume shared my astonishment, calling the assertion “a bombshell”.
“I was staggered to hear that. I have to say that was probably the most shocking development for me personally in all these years [of covering this story],” he commented. “It’s mind-blowing to think that the government could have systematically erased the tapes backing up these email correspondences about the biggest privatization project ever undertaken in BC, and which had been since 2003 the focus of a police investigation.”
Outraged defence lawyers demanded explanations. Yet Copley would soon tell the court, “There may be no explanation. No filing system is perfect.”
To me, Copley’s claim seemed either patently naïve or wholly sinister.
During that same time, I did occasional contract research into land deals made by the BC Ministry of Environment from 1900 to the present, so I know exactly how government correspondence surrounding crown assets are handled.
First, it’s important to understand that snailmail, faxing and couriers are becoming ever less common in government compared to emailing. Negotiations and collaborative processes involving businesses, NGOs, and regional and Victoria-based government offices often develop over months or years and are routinely tracked through email updates and email histories that virtually every government bureaucrat consults daily. Draft press releases, meeting minutes, new legislation, policy changes, business contracts and legal arrangements are forwarded around for discussions, edits and final approvals. (To quantify it: I submitted a federal Freedom of Information request about a decision on a medication’s safety which returned thousands of pages–about 80% in emails and their attachments.)
As a contractor, I witnessed and participated in numerous established practices to help ensure every BC government employee’s work-related emails were constantly being saved to government servers, backed-up off-site nightly, periodically shifted to long-term electronic archival directories, and often printed out en masse for paper filing, too. After all, everyone knew such records were the foundation of our province’s legal and political operations.
So it’s basically impossible for all cabinet emails to casually disappear within twenty years, let alone within thirteen months. Copley’s outrageous contention to the court left any knowledgeable person no alternative but to conclude that either our highest-level elected decision makers had conspired to suddenly delete all their emails covering 2001-2005 (including deleting the copies retained by their correspondents, and purging digital tape archives), or they’d unilaterally instituted a kamikaze policy of constantly and immediately deleting all of the records of all of their own deliberations and decisions before they’d been saved anywhere at all.
The only remaining option I saw was that the emails were still somewhere, but the government was obstructing justice and misleading the court.
On July 16, government information technology specialists finally admitted to the court that, during this May’s election campaign period, some as-yet-unnamed higher-ups had ordered them to erase all those emails, and systematically erase all the back-up digital tape archives.
So apparently, an illegal, highly orchestrated cover-up had occurred. And would anyone but Premier Gordon Campbell himself have had the combination of authority, guts and motive to ultimately sanction those orders?
The significance of this goes far beyond BC Rail deal corruption. No matter how this alleged mass data loss is viewed, it makes the Liberal government appear to not be operating under even the slimmest pretense of democratic principles. We must face the fact that we apparently have an entire cabinet of elected decision makers operating outside any reasonable, normal government protocols, business standards, or respect for the law. Some commentators have compared it to Watergate (see also here and here and here and here), where eighteen blanked-out minutes on an audio recording finally brought down a renegade U.S. President operating outside his legal authority. In this case, there’s a five-year blank in the public record for all activities involving our Premier and cabinet ministers!
Yet media coverage of these unspeakably scandalous actions has so far been relatively muted compared to the seriousness of the issues. (Some other articles: A vast overview can be found here. See also here and here.) It seems the apparent Liberal strategy of running out the clock is working, at least to the extent of making the case largely disappear from the news cycle.
“You’d think that that would be the top political story being pursued by the legislative press gallery corps day after day after day,” agrees Hume. “It’s almost like they don’t want to do stories that afflict the powerful people in Victoria.”
Indeed, too many journalists seem too comfortably settled on their beats, shirking direct confrontations and no longer daring to accuse our politicians of doing what our politicians seem all too willing to dare to do.
Meanwhile, why didn’t the RCMP copy all relevant computer files and emails five years ago? Wouldn’t that be the whole point of raiding the legislature, to seize critical documents that people might shred or erase? In light of July’s Focus article on the RCMP’s susceptibility to manipulation by politicians, we have to wonder what’s going on–especially considering one key witness testified the RCMP actually declined to take his emails.
So we can’t sit back and rely on the police and court. A likely outcome now is Virk and the Basis establish grounds to simply get the case thrown out, since the evidence that could’ve exonnerated them has been destroyed. Therefore, if Campbell’s not at least forced to face concentrated judgment in the court of public opinion, how else can we hold this rogue government to account?
Originally published in Focus, August 2009.