Former McGuinty staffer grilled about gas plants

A former top aide to ex-premier Dalton McGuinty fended off allegations today that senior Liberal staffers were directed to delete emails about two cancelled Toronto-area power plants as part of a cost coverup.

Chris Morley defends email deletions about cancelled projects in Mississauga, Oakville

Former Dalton McGuinty chief of staff Chris Morley testifies before a justice committee at Queen's Park on allegations the McGuinty Liberals deleted emails about two power plant cancellations as part of a cost coverup. (CBC)

A former top aide to ex-premier Dalton McGuinty fended off allegations today that senior Liberal staffers were directed to delete emails about two cancelled Toronto-area power plants as part of a cost coverup.

"There are 99 different reasons why staff are directed to delete documents," McGuinty's former chief of staff, Chris Morley, told a justice committee hearing this morning. "This — the debate that's emerged in Ontario that suggests that no document can ever be deleted — is simply false, it needs to be confronted."

Morley was in the hot seat at Queen's Park over allegations by opposition parties that he was involved in an attempt to destroy correspondence about the proposed gas-fired power plants in Mississauga and Oakville because the McGuinty Liberals wanted to keep the true magnitude of the $585-million cancellation costs hidden. The Liberals had claimed the price tag was far less.

Morley argued that so-called "transitory records" that are defined by Library and Archives Canada as documents kept only temporarily until no longer pertinent are actually required to be purged, in compliance with Ontario law, and as part of effective records management.

In one fiery exchange, NDP MPP Peter Tabuns charged that the Liberals tried to clean up a mess "to save your political hides."

'Delete as you go'

Although Morley acknowledged submitting over 300 pages of documents to Ontario Archives, none of the papers concerned the gas plant cancellations.

Provincial police are investigating the Tories' complaints that top Liberals in McGuinty's office not only deleted their emails about the gas plants, they tried to wipe the data completely from government computers.

Ontario's privacy commissioner found senior Liberals in the premier's office and the ministry of energy broke the law by deleting email accounts, knowing all their correspondence on the gas plants had been requested by the justice committee.

Morley was not one of the staff members named in the privacy commissioner’s scathing report. His email account was wiped clean after he left his job as the premier's chief of staff. 

Asked if he felt the privacy commissioner's conclusion about the mishandling of records was wrong, Morley reiterated that he had come up with 99 scenarios in which deletion of documents is either acceptable or required.

"She never spoke with me before. She has no idea how I deal with my records," he said.

Morley added that he was following "delete as you go" practices as part of good housekeeping, but said he never instructed staff to delete any emails.

When Progressive Conservative MPP Rob Leone pressed him about whether he transferred documents to portable data-storage devices after they'd been wiped, Morley quoted from the commissioner's report indicating that he did not.

'Collective amnesia'

Leone responded that "it is the practice of departing PO [premier's office] staff to ensure that business records are passed on to their successors."

PC Leader Tim Hudak says the committee has witnessed what he calls "a troubling case of collective amnesia" from other Liberals who have testified earlier and hopes Morley will be able to shed light on the scandal, which has continued to dog Premier Kathleen Wynne, McGuinty's successor

"I think it is probably in his interest to tell the truth," Hudak told CBC News. "And let us know exactly where those deleted emails went to, were copies kept, and who gave the orders?"

Tabuns, the NDP energy critic, still thinks Morley will be a key witness.

"He would know the culture in that office, he could speak about whether or not people were instructed to either retain or destroy their records."

With files from The Canadian Press