Dalton McGuinty calls email rules 'confusing'

In his second appearance before a justice committee in as many months, former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty attributed the illegal deletion of gas plant-related emails from his office to his staff's lack of training on the recordkeeping rules.

Ex-premier testifies before justice committee on illegally purged gas-plant memos

Former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty testifies before a justice policy committee about the illegal deletion of gas-plant emails from his office. (Canadian Press)

In his second appearance before a justice committee in as many months, former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty attributed the illegal deletion of gas plant-related emails from his office to his staff's lack of training on the recordkeeping rules.

His return to Queen's Park follows testimony earlier in the day from Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who revealed the improper wiping of records from McGuinty's office in a scathing report earlier this month.

"The rules here are confusing and they cry out for clarity," McGuinty testified. "What to destroy and what to preserve is today a matter of judgment. There is no comprehensive list of when to preserve, when to destroy."

At issue was whether top Liberal staffers in McGuinty's office intentionally purged emails about the cancellations of two Toronto-area gas plants.

Opposition MPPs pressed the former premier on whether he directed his staff to delete the correspondence.

McGuinty said the committee must realize that the volume of email correspondence filtering through his office at the time was "staggering," but acknowledged that his government erred as far as locating gas plants and fell short in complying with appropriate recordkeeping practices.

"We failed as a government," he said, adding that staff would have benefited from training seminars about the Archives and Recordkeeping Act.

McGuinty government passed 2006 act

But he accused his political rivals of twisting the emails issue to suit their needs.

"You're looking at this exercise through a purely partisan lens," McGuinty said. "You think this is specifically related to gas plants and the premier's office … [but] we have all come up short when it comes to understanding what our responsibilities are under this new piece of legislation."

New Democrat MPP Peter Tabuns pointed out that it was McGuinty's own government in 2006 that passed the very law they're now accused of violating.

"Why didn't you follow it?" Tabuns asked.

McGuinty responded that he was preoccupied with the "immediate responsibilities" of being premier.

"To demonstrate how confusing the area is, we've got a cabinet office directive ... that says when somebody leaves the office, you've got to delete all their emails," he said. "That is obviously in conflict with some rules over here" with respect to the Archives and Recordkeeping Act.

McGuinty said MPPs should seize on the the key lessons to be learned from the situation.

'It's called the Archives and Recordkeeping Act, not the Record Deleting Act.'—Ann Cavoukian, information and privacy commissioner

"How should we locate gas plants going forward? How should we ensure that there are clear rules when it comes to the archives act?" he said, rejecting assertions of a coverup.

McGuinty was called to Queen's Park last month to testify about when he learned of the costs of cancelling the gas plants slated for the suburban Toronto towns of Mississauga and Oakville. This time, the focus is on Cavoukian's findings about the emails.

"It's called the Archives and Recordkeeping Act, not the Record Deleting Act," Cavoukian testified earlier Tuesday, adding that the purging of government emails undermines citizens' rights to obtain records through Freedom of Information legislation and "clearly erodes the public's trust in government."

$585M cancellations

Cavoukian slammed the premier's office in her report, noting that McGuinty's staffers breached the province's recordkeeping act when they tried to wipe email accounts permanently and scrub data from government computers.

She has accused top Liberals of attempting to do so in order to conceal the $585-million price tag associated with cancelling the plants, which were axed to save five Liberal seats in the 2011 election.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has said he isn't buying arguments that the premier had no knowledge that his top aides were trying to wipe out their email accounts.

Hudak said he hopes McGuinty will be honest with taxpayers this time around and reveal exactly what happened with the mass destruction of government records.

The New Democrats say the privacy commissioner's report "cast a tremendous amount of doubt about the honesty of the [former] premier."

The standing committee on justice policy already grilled McGuinty's former chief of staff Chris Morley last week. Morley told opposition MPPs he could come up with "99 reasons why staff are directed to delete documents," including basic housekeeping practices for records that are no longer deemed useful.

Cavoukian took issue with Morley's testimony on Tuesday, calling it "misleading" to say that destruction of emails would be required by the government. 

'Cheap political points'

"Such a suggestion would be ludicrous, particularly for MPPs such as yourselves who wish to retain these records," she told the committee members.

"Email records are not necessarily transitory or duplicated records, Their context must be reviewed."

At one point, Liberal MPP Steve Del Duca's assertion that Cavoukian's report was "torqued" so that Queen's Park rivals could score "cheap political points" was met with guffaws from opposition members.

Cavoukian reiterated that she feels her report speaks for itself.

"I can't emphasize it enough," she said. "We need to have scrutiny of government activities, and in order for that to happen, the public has to have a right to access it under the Freedom of Information Act. They are denied that access unless the government provides access to [those documents]."

The week after Cavoukian's report was released, McGuinty resigned his seat as MPP for Ottawa-South. His successor, Kathleen Wynne, has continued to praise McGuinty for his legacy as Liberal leader, while also stating that she believes he should answer some tough questions about the gas plant scandal before the justice committee.

With files from The Canadian Press