EDMONTON - Alberta Energy Minister Ted Morton was cleared Tuesday of allegations he tried to deceive the public with a second email address — and he didn't even have to tell his side of the story to investigators.
Information and privacy commissioner Frank Work admitted that, in hindsight, it might have been a mistake not to call Morton as part of a review into the email.
"I'll be honest with you, if I was going to do it all over again, yeah, I would (interview Morton)," Work told reporters at a news conference called to deliver his findings. "(But) does it make any material difference to the evidence? On the basis of the evidence, no it doesn't."
Work insisted that not interviewing Morton was an "oversight." He got heated when a reporter suggested it was perhaps negligence.
"Well, fire me then!" he said.
Work began his investigation Sept. 8 after a former staffer in the Sustainable Resources Department told the CBC that Morton, while the department's minister, was using the email address "Frederick Lee" for correspondence that would be untraceable in freedom of information searches.
Morton, in the thick of a party race at the time to become the next premier, said he used the secondary email to help sort the voluminous email he received daily. The name Frederick Lee, he pointed out, was not covert because everyone in his office knew about it. And, he said, Frederick Lee are his first and second names.
A spokesman for Morton said Tuesday that the minister wouldn't be commenting on Work's report.
"He believes it speaks for itself and he has nothing to add," said Bart Johnson.
Work said his team talked to 16 people who were at a 2007 departmental staff meeting where the Fredrick Lee name scheme was allegedly spelled out. One of the 16 at that meeting told the CBC that the email was designed to be covert, but Work said the other 15 didn't recall such a plan.
The news conference was, at times, confusing.
At the start, Work made clear his office had exonerated both Morton and his staff.
"Based on the preponderance of evidence, there was no wilful attempt to alter, falsify, (or) conceal any documents from the (freedom of information) act by the SRD minister Morton or his staff."
But when pressed on why he didn't interview Morton, Work said the minister wasn't the review's target, just the staffer who allegedly told others that the email was to be covert.
"The allegation was that the communications director — not Mr. Morton — the communications director told staff about the (Frederick Lee) moniker, so that's where we focused."
Work said he relied on the evidence of the witnesses at the key meeting. But he also said that in his experience as a lawyer, "people are horrible witnesses." As an investigator he took the main threads of what each witness said to stitch together what likely occurred, he explained.
He admitted there are still unresolved questions.
For example, Work said that while it was common knowledge around the office that "Frederick Lee" and Ted Morton were one and the same person, the woman in charge of co-ordinating freedom of information searches in the department was, for whatever reason, not told.
"(Maybe) Morton directed she not be told," a reporter suggested. "(But) you won't know that because you never asked him."
"Yeah I suppose," said Work.
"Just asking (Morton), 'Why did you set up the secondary email?' Wouldn't that accomplish a big goal in your investigation?" suggested another reporter.
"Yeah, possibly," he said.
The media report and investigation came at a critically inopportune time for Morton. At the time he was one week away from the first round of balloting in the race to pick the next leader of the governing Progressive Conservative party and premier of the province.
Morton failed to attract enough votes from party members to make it to the second and final round of balloting where Alison Redford triumphed.
Redford named Morton to the energy post last week.
Work said he knew he was putting his office directly into the political firing line when he began the investigation during a leadership race.
"The timing was terrible, but I didn't think there was any choice," he said.
"On the face of what was reported, there may have been an offence to conceal and that's just not acceptable. The investigation, it just had to go (ahead).
"We went as fast as we could."
Work said he also found that, contrary to other allegations, Morton and his staff did not improperly shred documents when Morton moved to a new ministry.
The government can work to improve and standardize rules around what is and is not saved for posterity, Work suggested.
"It's been a real eye-opening exercise, certainly for me, and I think for the government of Alberta as well."
Laurie Blakeman, critic for the Opposition Alberta Liberals, said that despite Work's findings, Morton using Frederick Lee on emails spells just one conclusion.
"The minister was a scofflaw. I think he did intend to make his communications more difficult to access by using a secondary email that was not obvious," said Blakeman.
"The point was to defeat those who were trying to get access to his communications with his staff, and that to me is wrong."