Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Ted Morton used a covert email for his internal communications while he was a government minister to evade potential public scrutiny, documents confirm.
Emails leaked to CBC News show Morton used the name Frederick Lee – his actual first and middle names – as an official government email address while he was minister of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD).
At a July 2007 meeting, the ministry’s communications director gave SRD staff an explanation as to why Morton used the email address.
"She informed us that if you see an email with the moniker Frederick Lee, not to worry about it, it was just the minister using that email when he didn’t want people to know it was him doing the writing," former staff member Derrick Forsythe says.
Another ministry employee confirmed staff were told about Morton’s use of Frederick Lee for his internal communications.
Forsythe left the ministry several months later over what he characterized as ethical differences, including Morton’s use of an email alias, and the expectation that staff were to co-operate with this obfuscation.
"I thought it was wrong," Forsythe says. "It never quite sat right with me … that he could use an email that wasn’t known to the public."
Forsythe was eventually fired from SRD and is now locked in a protracted dispute with the department before the labour board.
Morton dodges questions
As part of his leadership platform, Morton has called for more transparency and less secrecy.
"I conduct myself in an honest and open way and I would try to make sure that cabinet members and people who are in positions of influence do likewise," Morton told a CBC News editorial board last month.
Former Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton, using the email name Frederick Lee, directs his staff to change legislation that will affect the land rights of Alberta's Métis people.
Ted Morton's former executive assistant, Eric Taylor, tells department Freedom of Information co-ordinator Andrea Hare that all emails and documents have been destroyed. Hare was seeking the records in response to a CBC News FOI request.
Morton has declined to explain his use of the Frederick Lee email address. CBC News approached Morton before an all-candidates meeting in Red Deer last week. The reporter offered to show him the leaked emails after the meeting if he agreed to an interview.
But when the CBC reporter attempted to enter Morton’s hospitality room after the meeting, he was barred by a staff member who said media were not allowed; only invited guests. Morton, at that moment, was speaking with a Calgary Herald columnist inside the hospitality room. Morton subsequently refused several requests to come outside the room for an interview with CBC News.
Morton’s campaign communications director, Sam Armstrong, had earlier told CBC News that Morton would not grant an interview. Armstrong said Morton did not consider his email address an issue since he used his actual first and middle name.
Ottawa lawyer Michel Drapeau, an expert in accessing government documents, says that explanation insults people’s intelligence.
"A five- or six-year-old will see right through that and say, ‘Give me a break.’ He may know that is a fraction of his name, but nobody else does."
Expert troubled by email address
Drapeau says that in several decades as a military officer, public servant and lawyer he has never seen a high-ranking public official use a "nom de plume" to conduct official government business.
"For somebody who hides behind an identity that is not his, raises a doubt in my mind as to whether or not this person understands the meaning of transparency and accountability," Drapeau says. "And basically it begs me to ask, ‘What do you have to hide?’"
During the period Morton was using the Frederick Lee email, he and SRD were working on new land-use legislation that subsequently caused many rural Albertans to question whether their private land rights had been undermined.
Some of the leaked emails discussed land use issues and were either authored by, or sent to, Frederick Lee. CBC News sought to determine if Morton’s use of Frederick Lee would thwart a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Using two specific dates from the leaked emails, CBC News made an FOI request for emails related to land use between Ted Morton and his staff. The request yielded nothing.
Morton’s attitude to Métis land rights revealed
In one of the emails, dated Nov. 15, 2008, Morton directs his staff to revise legislation relating to the potential land rights of Métis people.
"’Metis settlements’ have never been considered ‘private lands’ in the conventional sense of the term in Alberta, and now is not the time to start," Frederick Lee writes. "If the Metis settlements suddenly want to share in some of the potential benefits of private land ownership, do they also want to be subject to all the other restrictions and duties that attach to private land ownership in Alberta? I doubt it. They cannot have their cake and eat it too."
CBC News filed a second FOI request that sought to determine why none of the Frederick Lee emails were produced.
The request produced emails from Eric Taylor, Morton’s former executive assistant, to one of the department’s FOI co-ordinators. They showed that when Morton moved from SRD to become the minister of finance, they deleted their email archives. Another email showed staff still remaining at SRD also had no email records. There were also no paper records retained.
"No luck with paper," Taylor wrote in an April 3, 2011, email. "Our office staff shredded all our documents when Dr. Morton resigned from cabinet."
Morton resigned in January to seek the Conservative leadership.