A report prompted by a damning investigation into the culture of "triple-deleting" emails in B.C. government offices calls for tougher penalties for staff who deliberately try to evade freedom of information requests.

In a 70-page report, former privacy commissioner David Loukidelis calls on the Liberal government to "issue a rule prohibiting anyone from triple deleting emails."

He says public service employees who destroy records or help others destroy records in order to evade requests for access to information should be disciplined or fired. Loukidelis says they also should face charges under FOI legislation.

Delete, delete, delete

The former commissioner was called in after current B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham found a staffer in the transportation ministry had intentionally deleted emails and records connected to the so-called Highway of Tears.

An RCMP investigation has identified 18 women and girls who went missing along the northern stretch of highway since 1969. Denham's report claimed staffer George Gretes deleted records and then lied to her office under oath.

Elizabeth Denham

B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham raised concerns about the practice of triple-deletion and destruction of non-transitory records. (CBC)

Denham's report, Access Denied, revealed the practice of "triple deleting", in which an email is moved to the computer system's "deleted" folder, expunged from the folder itself and then manually erased from a 14-day backup system.

She also expressed concern about Premier Christy Clark's deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, who was found to be bulk deleting her emails on a daily basis.

Denham's report exposed confusion around the concept of "transitory" emails as opposed to communication that should be kept under legislation requiring the retention of "decision records, instruction and advice, as well as documentation of a policy matter or how a case was managed."

Loukidelis says all records can't be kept forever. But he says government should find a way to train both political and non-political staff to recognize and keep non-transitory records.

"At all costs, the provincial government should not entertain any notion that all electronic records must, regardless of their value, be retained," he says.

"The key, therefore is to find a practical way in which to identify the records that have value and then retain and manage them appropriately in proportion to their present and enduring value."

Tougher FOI laws required

Loukidelis says the government should reconfigure its email system so deleted emails can be recovered within 31 days, as opposed to 14. He also says each minister's office should have a dedicated public servant in charge of FOI request processing.

According to Denham's report, Cadario claimed "very few" of the emails she sends are non-transitory because she doesn't create government policy or give advice.

But Denham found that explanation flew in the face of Cadario's job description.

Loukidelis says political and non-political staff in both ministry offices and the premier's office should be trained in the requirements of information and privacy legislation.

He says employees should also face consequences, which could include the establishment of an offence relating to the wilful destruction of records, similar to legislation which already exists in Alberta.

The Criminal Justice Branch of B.C. has appointed a Vancouver lawyer as a special prosecutor to assist the RCMP in their investigation into Denham's allegations about Gretes.