Rachel Notley orders end to all government document shredding

All departments of the Alberta government have been ordered to immediately stop shredding documents, according to a spokeswoman for premier-designate Rachel Notley.

Directive comes hours after privacy commissioner launched unprecedented investigation

Jill Clayton, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and Peter Hourihan, the Public Interest Commissioner, have launched a joint investigation into the alleged improper destruction of records by a government department. (CBC)

All departments of the Alberta government have been ordered to immediately stop shredding documents, according to a spokeswoman for premier-designate Rachel Notley.

"At the request of the premier designate, the deputy minister of executive council has directed all departments to stop shredding until the new government assumes office," Cheryl Oates said in a statement issued by Notley's office on Wednesday afternoon.

Bags of shredded documents sit in a hallway at the Alberta legislature. (Edmonton Journal)
The statement was issued hours after Alberta's Information and Privacy Commissioner and the province's Public Interest Commissioner held an unprecedented news conference to announce they have launched a joint investigation after receiving complaints that allege documents were improperly destroyed by the province's department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

Jill Clayton, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, said her office has received letters of concern about the improper destruction of records during the transition period that followed the May 5 election, which ended a 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty.

Never been here before

Clayton was asked whether she was surprised by the bags of shredded documents seen in the legislature hallways in recent days, or whether that was normal procedure during a change of government. "I'm not sure Alberta has been in this situation before," she said. "So I don't know to be able to say that this is typical.

"However, I would expect that when somebody is leaving office, that there will be a significant amount of records that will legitimately be destroyed."

The investigation will try to find out whether any documents were improperly shredded.

The Freedom of Information and Privacy Act does not apply to the personal records of ministers, or an MLA's correspondence with constituents, but does apply to departmental records and cabinet records, Clayton said.

Under FOIP legislation, she said, it is an offence to wilfully destroy records to evade an access request. The fine for that is $10,000 per offense.

May 12 whistleblower

Public Interest Commissioner Peter Hourihan said his office received a tip on May 12 from an anonymous whistleblower who alleged that some documents in the ESRD had been improperly destroyed.

Asked if his office has ever had similar complaints in the past, during a transition period, Hourihan said: "We've never had a transition period."

The anonymous tip, Hourihan said, "just talked about records," but the complaint did not say whether the records were paper or electronic.

"I do know, just based on some of the information that we've received in the complaint, that leads me to believe that it is a legitimate concern that someone has."

Clayton said the investigation could expand beyond a single department.

"The investigation is focused on Environment and Sustainable Resource Development," she said, "but certainly the investigation could be expanded to include other government departments as information becomes available."

No search and seizure powers

Asked if she has ordered the department to stop shredding records, Clayton said: "I don't have search and seizure powers. I can't go over there and stop everything from happening and take all the records away.

"They're definitely aware of this investigation. We've pointed out again that there are offences for wilfully destroying records to evade access requests. I think it might be in everybody's best interest that if there is some concern about the lawfulness of any destruction, that they would stop."

Clayton put out a statement last week to remind government departments about the guidelines and rules for dealing with documents, and to ask anyone with information about improperly destroyed records to contact her office.

"We have had a number of media inquires about this issue," Clayton said.

Within two days of the May 5 election, warnings about document shredding in government offices began to spread on social media and in news stories. Clayton was also asked Wednesday about photos and comments that began to appear on Twitter within 48 hours of the election.

"We might follow on Twitter and see that there's a photo that's posted that shows shredded documents," she said. "In my view, that's not enough to launch an investigation, which is why we put out the statement. I don't know what records those are, I don't know if they're subject to FOIP, I don't know who's responsible for them. So, we requested that anybody with some evidence, or with concerns, that they provide that to me so that I would have something to go on, someplace to start with an investigation like this. We're not able to go out there an seize records. I don't have the people to be overseeing every single shredding machine in the Government of Alberta."

Truck filled with documents

One photo on Twitter showed bags of documents in the back of a pickup truck.

"I'm aware of that photograph," Clayton said. "I don't know what records those are, I don't know whose truck that is."

In order to prosecute any who improperly destroyed records, the investigation would have to meet the "threshold" to prove it was intentional, Clayton said.

"It has long been a challenge to move forward with offence prosecutions where there is that wilful element. That is the most difficult thing to establish in any of our offence investigations."

The commissioners have the authority to go to IT people in the department and try to get original documents off computer servers. Clayton said she can compel departments to produce documents.

Clayton said the investigation could serve as a warning to other departments, and is intended to reassure the public that someone is looking into how documents have been handled.

"This has got so much attention right now by people across Alberta ... that I think Albertans want and need to know that something is taking place."

This is the first time the two commissioners have launched a joint investigation. The results will be made public, she said, even if it turns out nothing was done wrong.