OTTAWA – The emails belonging to Benjamin Perrin once believed deleted were actually “frozen” in relation to legal action dealing with a privacy breach of Canada Student Loan borrowers, according to the prime minister’s office.
The litigation has to do with an external hard drive containing the private details of some 583,000 people that went missing at Employment and Social Development Canada, formerly Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, an official said.
It is not believed Perrin, who worked as a special advisor and legal counsel to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was involved in the breach. Some accounts at Privy Council Office, which provides bureaucratic support to the prime minister and cabinet, may have also been frozen.
“It had absolutely nothing to do with Perrin or PMO,” said Harper’s spokesman, Jason MacDonald.
The RCMP had sought Perrin’s emails for its investigation into the Senate spending scandal surrounding Nigel Wright’s deal to pay Sen. Mike Duffy $90,00 to pay off his expenses, but was told they had been deleted when Perrin left the PMO in April.
But on Sunday, the PCO said in a letter to the RCMP it was mistaken when it said the emails had been deleted, as is standard procedure.
In fact, the emails had been “retained due to a litigation hold in an unrelated matter,” wrote Isabelle Mondou, assistant secretary to the cabinet in the office of the counsel to the Clerk of the Privy Council.
Mondou apologized for inadvertently misinforming the RCMP and said the PCO would immediately hand over the emails.
Raymond Rivet, director of corporate and media affairs at PCO, said he had “no additional information” about the litigation. Perrin did not respond to request for comment, but last spring denied any role in the Wright-Duffy affair.
The student loan action was launched this year by a group of lawyers from Toronto, Vancouver and St. John’s, after it was revealed a file containing private information such as birth dates and social insurance numbers was lost for two months before the government disclosed the breach.
A spokeswoman for Employment Minister Jason Kenney said in an email the class action lawsuit is currently “resolving itself in the courts.”
The matter is up for certification motion on Dec. 17 in Toronto, meaning a judge has yet to decide whether it can proceed as a class action.
Ted Charney, one of the lawyers involved in the case, said he has not seen the government’s documents and couldn’t comment on whether PCO or PMO would have been involved.
“We haven’t seen the information, and we don’t know if it’s a plausible explanation,” he said.
But opposition members say the explanation doesn’t add up.
Deputy Liberal Leader Ralph Goodale made an access to information request to PCO seeking emails, including records to and from Perrin. The PCO responded in late June that no records were found.
Goodale said it’s hard to imagine why Perrin’s emails would be frozen.
“One wonders how the lost data from Human Resources was considered by the government to be worthy of freezing all accounts, or freezing Perrin’s account,” said Goodale.
“I bet tomorrow we hear another explanation, and another one after that. This just doesn’t smell right.”
Goodale said he’s more concerned that PCO couldn’t find Perrin’s emails. He made a complaint to the federal information commissioner, who is now looking into the matter.
“How is it that the most senior department of government, the PCO, could be so fundamentally wrong on something that has paralyzed the activity of the government of Canada for six months?” he said.
“What rock have they been living under, that they didn’t think this was important.”
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus called the latest explanations about the emails “more and more ridiculous.”
“They’re making it sound like this is some Service Canada outlet with summer employees out in Saskatchewan someplace, not the inner workings of the prime minister’s office,” he said.
He said he’s equally disturbed by the fact that emails are routinely deleted when someone leaves the PMO.
“I’m worried that the rot that runs through the prime minister’s office is damaging the ability of privy council to do its job,” he said. “We need to understand whether or not this was simply an attempt to stonewall the RCMP. That’s the big question.”
Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer who worked at PCO for a decade, called it a “very security-conscious environment.”
He said in his 10 years on the job he never had his email system frozen.
“Is it possible? I guess it’s possible,” he said.
“Is it probable that they would somehow lose track of this information given all that’s gone on? That’s a bit harder to believe.”