Alberta shred-gate probe reveals lack of government accountability, effective management

Nearly 350 boxes of documents shredded last May by the outgoing Alberta Progressive Conservative government were destroyed improperly and without any supervision, an investigation by the privacy and public interest commissioners has found.

Report concludes no wrong-doing, just "confusion" about the rules

Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton and Public Interest Commissioner Peter Hourihan discussed the findings of their report into the shredding of government documents after the May 5 provincial election. (CBC )

Nearly 350 boxes of documents shredded last May by the outgoing Alberta Progressive Conservative government were destroyed improperly and without any supervision, an investigation by the privacy and public interest commissioners has found. 

Bags of shredded documents sit in a hallway at the Alberta legislature shortly after the election. (Edmonton Journal)
The documents from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) were destroyed one day after the May 5 election which saw the NDP end 44 years of Tory power. 

The report says the documents in the 344 boxes "includes records created and received by the offices" of the deputy minister and minister of the department.

"Based on the descriptions in the inventories provided, these included working papers, meeting notes, correspondence, day files, and action requests (ARs) relating to litigation, committees, legislation, cabinet, outside organizations, other governments, committees, and Aboriginal communities."

The report states the documents in the boxes account for "over half of the total number of boxes destroyed in all of ESRD in April and May."

PC MLA Kyle Fawcett was the outgoing ERSD minister at the time. 

No penalties for breaking the rules

While the probe found no evidence staff were directed to shred certain documents, records may have been lost for good in the purge.

"Yes, I think that's possible, " said Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton. 

The probe found the documents were destroyed without any record of why or in what order it was done, nor was there any supervision of the process. Due to a lack of security and controls, documents may have been destroyed because staff thought they were duplicates, the investigation found.

However, the probe found that the documents were not destroyed to avoid a freedom of information request. Instead, Public Interest Commissioner Peter Hourihan concluded there was "confusion about rules during the government transition." 

The records management program used by the provincial government lacks accountability, with no oversight and no sanctions for anyone found in contravention of regulations, the report found. 

The investigation also revealed officials with Service Alberta had a serious misunderstanding about how to process freedom of information requests for executive records in the Action Request Tracking System (ARTS), which tracks ministerial correspondence. 

Hourihan and Clayton are recommending the government tighten controls and policies to ensure documents are preserved, particularly after a change in government. They want sanctions to be put in place for anyone caught breaking records management rules. 

They also suggest Service Alberta and the provincial archives oversee implementation of new rules. 

Service Alberta Minister Danielle Larivee said her department will implement all of the report's recommendations.

In the meantime, there is now additional staff training and oversight procedures to ensure the proper documents are retained, she said.

"There is a mess and we will clean it up," she said.

More questions raised 

Clayton said Fawcett and other PC politicians and political staff were not interviewed in the investigation.

"I don't think it was relevant to the investigation," she said, adding there was no suggestion staff were acting under the minister's orders

She said her investigators talked to the assistant deputy minister and other officials directly in charge of records management within ERSD. 

The investigation was launched after bags of shredded records were seen in the halls of the Alberta legislature. The issue was flagged by Alberta Party leader Greg Clark on May 13. An investigation was launched that same day. 

Incoming premier Rachel Notley ordered an end to all shredding hours after Hourihan and Clayton announced their investigation. 

In a news release, Clark called on Hourihan and Clayton to launch a second investigation to clear up questions raised by Thursday's report. 

"Albertans deserve to know which files were destroyed and whether some can be recovered," Clark said. "I would also like to know how many FOIP requests were not completed, and to see those requests reopened."

Wildrose accountability critic Jason Nixon called on the government to implement all the recommendations from the report. 

Although Clayton and Hourihan say no deliberate wrongdoing took place, Nixon said he is still concerned that public servants don't understand the rules for freedom of information requests. 

"It's critical that FOIP operates appropriately," Nixon said. "It's important for the public to really get access."

Clayton said she is particularly concerned that records management staff are unclear about what can be released under the rules.  Her office will discuss what should be done next, she said.