Former Prime Minister's Office legal advisor Ben Perrin may have broken the rules by failing to ensure key emails would be saved from the virtual shredder, a spokesman for the Privy Council Office suggests.

The recently revealed policy of automatically deleting the email accounts of departing employees only kicks in after any and all information with "business value" has been archived in the event that it should be required in future, Privy Council Office spokesman Raymond Rivet said. 

That's an obligation, he added, "made explicit in the departure process and documentation."

Once the staffer has officially left the employ of the office — either PCO or PMO, in this case — the department terminates his or her access to the system and deletes the email account, although that information can be recovered from backup for up to 30 days.

Not surprisingly, Rivet declined to comment on why Perrin apparently failed to flag those emails for preservation before leaving government.

But PMO communications director Jason MacDonald confirmed that the "onus is on staff" to make the call on what records need to be kept. 

"We expect staff to follow the rules."

PM challenged in House

The question of just who was in charge of archiving those now hotly pursued emails came up in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon.  

New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair challenged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reconcile the 'operating protocol' of deleting the email accounts of departing staffers with the requirement to keep all records needed to account for the activities of government. 

"Why was the law broken?" he challenged Harper.  

In response, the prime minister assured the House that it is the responsibility of all employees to follow "the applicable rules."

Perrin, meanwhile, has yet to respond to queries on why those emails weren't flagged before he returned to his post at the University of British Columbia earlier this year. 

As for the auto delete policy itself, it doesn't appear to fall afoul of the rules for information management —  provided, that is, that all emails that could potentially be disclosed under access rules are preserved before the wipe.

If in doubt, 'keep it!'

Under the Library and Archives Act, "no government or ministerial record ... shall be disposed of, including by being destroyed, without the written consent of the Librarian and Archivist or of a person to whom the Librarian and Archivist has, in writing, delegated the power to give such consents."

That rule. however, only applies to records with "historic or archival value," according to Library and Archives spokesperson Richard Provencher.

Departments — including PCO — are free to dispose of records that don't meet those criteria when no longer required.

Even federal access to information laws allow for the deletion of transitory records, which are defined as those "required only for a limited time to ensure the completion of a routine action or the preparation of a subsequent record."

That does not, however, include records "required by government institutions or Ministers to control, support, or document the delivery of programs, to carry out operations, to make decisions, or to account for activities of government."

Judging from the examples provided by the information commissioner's office in its 2010 manual for federal employees ​— "casual communications," meeting notices, draft documents and photocopies of departmental publications — it seems highly unlikely that any email related to the then-ongoing negotiations with Senator Mike Duffy and his lawyers would even come close to being considered "transitory."

"If you are ever in doubt about a record's status," advises the handbook, "keep it!"