Just when we thought Alberta politics couldn’t get any weirder up popped Frederick Lee. This week we learned that PC leadership candidate Ted Morton used an alter-ego “Frederick Lee” for internal email communications when, according to a former staffer, “…he didn’t want people to know it was him doing the writing”.*
As if this wasn’t bizarre enough, we also learned that Mr Morton’s staff deleted all his emails and shredded his documents when he left his cabinet post earlier this year.**
Frank Work, the Privacy Commissioner, has launched an investigation to determine whether Mr Morton used Frederick Lee in order to avoid FOIP issues and whether the destruction of records was appropriate. (Mr Work is a staunch supporter of the public’s right to information and the fact that this investigation has landed in his lap on the eve of his retirement is surely an act of serendipity on the part of the gods.)
Mr Morton doesn’t see what the fuss is about. Here’s what he had to say on the topic of his nom de plume Frederick Lee**
“If I was trying to avoid FOIPP, I wouldn’t have used my real name”
OK, Wikipedia may have been aware that Fredrick Lee Morton is “known commonly as Ted Morton’ but the rest of us were not. Michel Drapeau, an Ottawa Lawyer and expert in accessing government documents sums it up best: “A five- or six-year old will see right through that and say, ‘Give me a break’. [Mr Morton] may know that is a fraction of his name, but nobody else does.” Mr Drapeau has filed over 5000 access to information requests to every federal government ministry, agency and department known to man. He should know.
“I’ve done nothing out of the ordinary…[an investigation]…will exonerate me from doing anything different than what the premier does or any of the other ministers do”.
Well, Mr Morton is right about the Premier. Mr Stelmach has 3 emails and one under a pseudonym (what’s with these guys, do they think they work for the CIA). However, Mr Morton is wrong about his fellow PC leadership candidates Alison Redford and Gary Mar. They have one email address. In the fullness of time the Privacy Commissioner’s investigation will fill in the blanks around the other MLAs, assuming of course that they’re not at this moment busily destroying their alias emails.
“It was a question of administrative efficiency”.
Mr Morton raises a legitimate point—wouldn’t the taxpayers want their ministers to do real work instead of plowing through 400-500 emails a day? Sure we would. That’s why a huge chunk of our tax dollars goes toward paying the salaries of the ministers’ administrative assistants, support staff, technical staff, ADMs, DMs, junior ministers and all the other bureaucrats who keep the wheels of government grinding along. These people are paid to pore over emails sent to their ministers so that ministers like Mr Morton won’t have to.
But take the reference to administrative efficiency down a notch—to the one Frederick Lee email that escaped the shredder. At 18:17:08, Nov 15, 2008 the Land Use Framework email was sent by Mr Morton from a telus.net email address to Frederick Lee with the following instructions: “Please see the attached or below. Forward to Morris and whomever else needs to see it”. Frederick Lee (aka Mr Morton) received the email from himself, read the instructions to himself and forwarded the email on to Morris and two other individuals. The whole process took 25 minutes. Does this look like an exercise in efficiency or an effort to avoid public scrutiny?
With respect to the wholesale destruction of government records, Mr Morton has this to say:**
“It was certainly acceptable under the circumstances, because nobody told us otherwise.”
Well, not exactly. In 2004 the Government of Alberta created a guide for the retention and destruction of government records.***The Guide says everything is a record. Some records are “official records” which must be retained. Others are “transitory records” which can be destroyed after they’ve served their purpose. Official records document activities like policy generation, business planning and the protection of public rights. Transitory records are fleeting records which relate to immediate or short term minor transactions. An example of a transitory record, this one from Mr Horner, is a note reminding him to meet his wife for lunch.
Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between a document that must be kept and one that can be destroyed. In these cases the Guide says—when in doubt keep it. There’s a second proviso relating to transitory records. If a transitory record contains information which is subject to a FOIP request or litigation, the transitory record is frozen. It must not be destroyed.
The most important statement in the Guide is this: “The records that document our jobs are important assets that are owned by the government. They are not ours to do with as we choose”.
So why did Mr Morton choose to destroy the records relating to his tenure prior to his resignation from Cabinet? Did he consider them all transitory and relating to minor, short term, insignificant activities? The Land Use Framework memo send by him to Frederick Lee addressed whether the Metis settlements should be included in the definition of private lands and whether the Inuit have aboriginal rights within the context of the land use policy. These are policy considerations. Even a very skilled legal advisor would have difficulty jamming that memo into the definition of transitory records which can be sent to the shredder. And yet, this email is the only one in the chain to surface in response to the CBC’s FOIP request.
Mr Morton further justifies his decision to shred with the comment that “nobody told us otherwise”. This is like telling a police officer that you didn’t realize you were speeding through a playground zone because you didn’t see the sign. His response: Too bad. Here’s your ticket. Have a nice day.
The Privacy Commission investigation couldn’t have come at a better time. With any luck the Commission’s findings will be made public before the next election and Albertans will have an opportunity to measure the PC’s running for re-election against their promise of democratic renewal and increased transparency. I’m betting that the Commission’s findings will be enough to get the 60% of Alberta voters who didn’t vote in the last election up out of their armchairs to vote for a candidate who is prepared to call a rose a rose and mean it.
*CBC News on-line Sept 8, 2011
**Edmonton Journal On line Sept 8, 2011, CBC News On-Line Sept 8, 2011, c-news, Canoe.ca, Sept 9, 2011
***Official and Transitory Records: A Guide for Government of Alberta Employees March 2004