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Server scandal: Private email server leads to questions

author: ethan williams | staff writer

The Sask. Party’s use of a private email server for government business has caused a lot of controversy recently. credit jaecy bells

 

Is Wall’s private email server holding back information?

By now, it’s no secret that Premier Brad Wall has used a private email server in the past for conducting government business, but after Wall said earlier this year that he would stop using it, it was learned that he was still continuing to use it for his work. Wall’s situation has echoed what happened in the U.S. last year, with investigations into emails that were sent and received by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. But why would using a private account cause such an uproar?

Jim Farney is professor in the department of political science and international studies at the University of Regina, and says that it’s about keeping party and government matters in separate places.

“Wall, as leader of the party, has an account [within the Sask. Party] that you would expect he uses for party business. There is kind of an expectation that he would keep party business and government business separate. They do need to maintain two infrastructures for that. The most recent story has been he’s been using it because his government email was down for a couple of weeks in September on and off so it would be easier for him to switch over to his Sask. Party account.”

The issue of private email servers has tied into a recent Sask. Party scandal. Just a few weeks back, a former Sask. Party staffer told CBC News that he was informed by then-Social Services Minister Donna Harpauer to use his private email account, and not his government account, to send sensitive emails, saying that using a private email server for those matters was the “cardinal rule” in the Sask. Party at the time.

Farney says that it is a possibility that the use of private emails could have been involved in other scandals, such as the ongoing saga involving the Global Transportation Hub, but there are really no clear answers.

“That’s always the question. Is it actually a legitimate technical problem or is it an attempt to hide things? To be honest, the most straight-forward way to hide communications is to pick up the phone, but we do have a fairly rigorous protocol around journalists and citizens being able to use freedom of information and there is always the worry that the reaction to those rules would be that the government is hiding things. There have been some stories break around other ministers using it, and the question is ‘How wide spread is it?’”

So just what will get government officials to stop using a private server? Would punishment for this sort of behaviour be warranted? Farney says that the use of the server is not likely the issue, as it is allowable for government to use the two separate servers. However, he referenced a case in Ontario where charges were laid.

“There were criminal charges laid. People were going in and this was an occasion where they were using their government email, but they then brought in a private contractor to try and wipe that email thread from the server and actually destroy some hard drives to try and cover their tracks. It’s not because there’s a rule that says you can’t use a private server, there’s other legislation that comes into play.”

He went on to say that in the case of Clinton, many people were upset that she was using a private server because they assumed she was up to no good, and that she was hiding potentially sensitive information on her private account.

The provincial NDP has also weighed in on this situation before, and strongly opposes any use of a private server from the Sask. Party. David Forbes is the NDP MLA for Saskatoon Centre and says that there are a couple of reasons why using a private server could be concerning.

“We have deep concerns about them using a private server. It is really important that we should be able to find out details from freedom of information requests, and on a private server, that’s not the case. Also, when it comes time for these ministers to submit their records for archives, that won’t be part of the archive record.”

Forbes says that there are a lot of questions surrounding the recent political scandals, and says that the use of the servers has led to uncertainty.

“It certainly leaves the door open to a lot of questions and speculation as to what happened. This is, again, confidence in the government around accountability and transparency. When you have a record of government ministers using their private servers when they choose to, this is a problem.”

Forbes then referred to the situation involving Harpauer and her role in the use of her own private email.

He also mentioned that it was “deeply troubling” that Wall hadn’t stopped using his private account when he announced he would stop doing so.

“This leads to real questions about a lack of respect for the legislature, and for, particularly, the Privacy Commissioner, who’s cautioned them to use the proper protocol when communicating with each other so that there is a record for freedom of information requests. This is one that I think the government, and particularly the minister, should be answerable to.”

While the NDP continues to push for answers from the government, and continues to wait and see if any scandals will be connected with the email issue, public interest will likely only increase as more information becomes available. For Farney, he says there will be many things to consider.

“The question becomes – if the Premier’s government email was down, I guess that’s understandable… But if it was, then it opens questions as to why. This is the second phase of the question around private emails in Sask. Is it an ongoing story? Does it tie in with the GTH?”

 

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