B.C. privacy czar says no personal info shared in ethnic vote scandal

VANCOUVER – British Columbia’s privacy czar says an investigation by her office did not find evidence that the province’s Liberal government shared personal information about voters with the Liberal party as part of a controversial ethnic outreach plan.

But Elizabeth Denham did find that government employees with close ties to the party commonly exchanged government information between their work email and personal email accounts.

It is “a worrying trend from both an access to information and privacy protection point of view,” Denham said in the report released Thursday.

The investigation was initiated after news broke earlier this year about an ethnic outreach plan hatched by high-ranking government employees in the lead up to the May provincial election.

The scandal forced Premier Christy Clark to apologize several times and fire her deputy chief of staff. It also forced the resignation of then-multicultural minister John Yap.

In December 2011, the premier’s former deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad, called a meeting with representatives of government, the B.C. Liberal Party and the government caucus, the report said.

The discussion focused on better co-ordination by those three groups to win ethnic votes in the provincial election last May.

An investigation by the head of the public service, John Dyble, noted that an outreach plan that resulted from that meeting called for sharing information between government and the party.

He also found that at least two government employees with roles in the Liberal party were sending emails with lists of personal information from their government email accounts to personal email accounts.

Denham noted that the outreach plan made reference to organizing multicultural roundtables throughout the province, and the government did just that from June to September 2012.

A list of attendees was recorded at each meeting, with their address, email and telephone number, but Denham said the investigation found no evidence that information was provided to the party.

Four people with links to the Liberal party were interviewed under oath, including Brian Bonney, who was a communications director for government and a director on the board of the B.C. Liberal Party at the time the outreach plan was drafted.

He told privacy commission investigators that he commonly sent emails between his government email account and his personal email accounts so that he could easily access them from any location — not to share information between his government role and his party role.

“My investigators did not find evidence contradicting Mr. Bonney on this point and therefore did not have evidence to justify a court-ordered search of Mr. Bonney’s personal email accounts,” the report noted.

Bonney has since left government.

The report made the same finding about Fiera Lo, who was director of stakeholder relations for the B.C. Liberal Party when the outreach plan came about and became executive assistant to the former multicultural minister in May 2012.

“It is an accepted practice in Canada for public servants to have affiliations with political parties,” Denham’s report said.

“However, it is critical to the operation of government that these individuals draw a clear distinction between their partisan role and their government duties.”

Denham noted that Haakstad emailed the outreach plan from her personal email account to Liberal party officials as well as caucus and government.

She made five recommendations to ensure the security of government information, including keeping government business in government-controlled information management systems.

The report also recommended mandatory training on how to keep roles separate for government employees with close ties to the political party.