by David J. Climenhaga
As far as Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner is concerned, Alberta Energy Minister Ted “Freddy Lee” Morton is off the hook for using a real government email address with a semi-real name on it back when he was minister of sustainable resource development to … well, to do something.
Commissioner Frank Work issued a news release and went to a news conference on Tuesday to carefully explain that Dr. Morton didn’t break any laws when he used a government email account that listed his legal first name (which almost nobody knew was his legal first name) as his first name and his legal middle name as (according to the government email protocol) his last name.
OK. If this were illegal, at least on Gmail, half the readers of this blog would be in jail. But that doesn’t exactly make it “best practice” for a minister of the Crown with not only the legal responsibility to see that justice is done in the matter of freedom of information requests but the moral responsibility to ensure that justice appears to be done.
Whatever, Mr. Work also found that Dr. Morton and his office staff “did not willfully conceal or destroy emails or other records with the intent to evade a request for access to those records.” (Emphasis added.) They destroyed them, presumably, for some other reason – maybe to free up disk space on their computers.
Mr. Work also said the investigator he assigned to the case concluded after interviewing 16 people from the minister’s former office that the use of the “Frederick Lee” email address by Dr. Morton – which was first revealed in a CBC expose during the Alberta Conservative leadership campaign, in which Dr. Morton was a candidate – “was known within SRD and by outside organizations that communicated with the ministry.”
Ergo, no probleemo, either for Dr. Morton or Premier Alison Redford, who quickly put him back into another important Cabinet post as soon as she was sworn in.
The media immediately declared Dr. Morton cleared of any wrongdoing, and you could almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from the Legislative Building. No further discussion of this matter will be tolerated.
Now, I don’t know about you, though, but the privacy commissioner’s conclusions were just a little too carefully phrased for my taste.
First, of course, there are lots of things that may be technically legal but are not quite considered kosher by thinking people – and it is said here that using a name you can be reasonably confident almost no one outside your immediate circle will recognize as yours to do government business is an example.
Second, since there seems to be no doubt the ministry staff did destroy some emails, a statement that this was not done to evade a request for access to those records is not good enough in the absence of a clear explanation of why the records were destroyed. A fair person can accept that the commissioner’s explanation may be accurate. But we deserve to know why it was done.
The investigator’s report only tells us that there’s a “possibility” one missing document was destroyed because “it had been treated as a transitory record,” and that others using the Freddy Lee account were kept but not given to the CBC because “they were thought not to be responsive to the access request as revised by the CBC.”
Say what? Why would this be? The games played by governments to avoid responding to Freedom of Information requests are legion. So why were these particular emails thought not to be “responsive”? Because the CBC asked for the wrong name, perhaps? We simply can’t tell from the facts the information commissioner has provided.
In addition, the commissioner told the news conference that some 17,000 emails were lost during a “system change” – and explanation that, if nothing else, doesn’t say much for the quality of record keeping our tax dollars are buying us.
Third, the conclusion of the investigator that everything is OK because “the use of the Frederick Lee email address by Mr. Morton was known within SRD and by outside organizations that communicated with the ministry” is flawed.
Sorry, but this suggests that it’s acceptable for cabinet ministers to engage in practices that deprive the majority of citizens of information they need and are entitled to as long as the minister’s friends and the people he does business with know what’s what.
In other words, insiders knew about the private address, but no one else could even guess – not the opposition, not even those of us who knew what Dr. Morton’s legal names really happened to be.
I’m not suggesting that cabinet ministers ought not to have private email addresses for people they know and need to correspond with. This whole brouhaha would be nothing but hot air if we could confidently conclude, as did Mr. Work’s investigator, that “the Frederick Lee email address was used to manage emails, given the volume of emails sent to Mr. Morton’s public ministerial email address.”
Having a private government email account is reasonable. But notwithstanding the commissioner’s conclusion, having it in a name that defied the government’s own email-naming protocol does not pass the sniff test.
Albertans have been asked to take the investigator’s word for it that Dr. Morton didn’t mean to make it difficult for members of the public to do Freedom of Information searches of his correspondence – and perhaps that is so. But it sure as hell that that effect, didn’t it?
If Dr. Morton’s account had been “frederick.morton” or “f.l.morton,” I’d be inclined to accept Mr. Work’s conclusions as valid. But Freddy Lee? I don’t think so.
Under the circumstances, it does not seem unreasonable for veteran Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman to conclude that she still believes “the minister was a scofflaw … the point was to defeat those who were trying to get access to his communications with his staff.”
After the dust has settled, all this report proves is that, no matter what you do, being an Alberta Tory means never having to say you’re sorry.
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