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Liberal Party cleared in alleged ethnic outreach leak

08/01/2013 02:47 EDT | Updated 10/01/2013 05:12 EDT
B.C's privacy commissioner has cleared the Liberal party of wrongdoing in the ethnic outreach scandal, but found that the troubling practice of using personal email accounts to conduct government business is commonplace.

Elizabeth Denham released a report this morning following an investigation into allegations of information sharing between the B.C. government and the B.C. Liberal Party in what became known as the "ethnic outreach" scandal.

Four Liberal staff members ended up stepping down from their positions because of the scandal: former B.C. government communications director Brian Bonney, former Multiculturalism Minister John Yap, the premier's former deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad, and government staffer, Mike Lee.

In her commission's final report, Denham says the investigation did not find any evidence that government employees shared the names of attendees of multicultural roundtables with the B.C. Liberal Party.

"The investigation did not find evidence that government improperly disclosed that information as part of the Outreach Plan," Denham said in the report. "Further, the investigation did not find evidence that the BC Liberal Party either improperly collected or disclosed personal information as part of the Outreach Plan initiative."

4 interviewed under oath

In the course of the investigation, The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner reviewed the leaked ethnic outreach plan memo and the report released in March by former Deputy Premier John Dyble.

"Of particular concern to me were the references in the Outreach Plan of the need for government to share information with the B.C. Liberal Party as well as the finding in the Dyble Report that two government employees who also had roles with the B.C. Liberal Party were sending emails with lists of personal information from their government email accounts to their personal email accounts," Denham said.

Investigators obtained email logs for some government employees, and reviewed witness statements and emails that the government caucus collected in its review.

Denham said her officers also interviewed four individuals under oath: Brian Bonney and Fiera Lo, who both worked for government and had roles with the BC Liberal Party, Michele Cadario, who was deputy campaign director with the B.C. Liberal Party, and Sepideh Sarrafpour, who had been hired on contract with the B.C. government caucus to do multicultural outreach work.

A primary focus of the commissioner's investigation was to determine whether a database of personal information gleaned from government-sponsored multicultural roundtable events was shared with the B.C. Liberal Party.

While statements in the outreach plan talking about the need to "break-down government silos" and "share info with [the BC Liberal Party"] raised flags for the commissioner, investigators found no evidence that it was more than just talk.

"My investigators did not find evidence of the creation of a database containing personal information which was shared between government and either caucus or the BC Liberal Party," Denham said.

Personal email use commonplace

Investigators also found that exchanging government information between work email and personal email accounts was commonplace among some employees.

"...Which I find to be a worrying trend from both an access to information and privacy protection point of view," Denham said.

Investigators found that personal email accounts were being used by employees in order to access documents while travelling, and as a backup source in the event that the battery runs out in their government-issued smartphones.

"My investigators were also told that because it was sometimes difficult to access and print government documents while away from the office, employees would email documents to their personal email account so that they could be easily printed at a hotel, conference centre, or at home," Denham said.

Denham made four recommendations to help the government better manage security around personal information, including improving training practices for government employees who also have roles that are closely tied to a political party.

Denham also recommended that the B.C. Liberal Party should train its volunteers and employees on issues around information sharing with those in government roles.

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