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Government by Gmail: Private email used to remind staff of code of conduct rules

In the wake of the Greenbelt scandal, as the Ford government began implementing recommendations made by Ontario’s Auditor General, the Premier’s Office brought in a party stalwart to help identify conflicts of interest and improve the conduct of political staff.

Deb Hutton, who once served as the chief of staff to Mike Harris, was tasked with meeting with chiefs of staff, and other employees in the Ford government to discuss ways to avoid potential conflicts and improve processes after the auditor cautioned the government over the use of private email for official provincial business.

“I went in to talk to them about what’s important in terms of maintaining strict integrity going forward, making sure that when they look back, that everything is as it should be in terms of public trust,” Hutton told Global News last October.

Shortly after Hutton wrapped up her work, Premier Doug Ford’s Chief of Staff Patrick Sackville sent off an email to other chiefs of staff, who report directly to him and other senior staffers, to reinforce Hutton’s message.

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“Reminder: events protocol – true patriot love dinner/gala,” the subject line of the email read.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the email told Global News the message outlined strict rules for how chiefs and other senior staffers should conduct themselves in terms of receiving anything that could be considered a gift.

Sackville wrote that government employees should not accept tickets to the True Patriot Love event. If staff wanted to go, they were told, they would have to buy a ticket themselves.

The email reminding staff to be vigilant to potential pitfalls, Global News has learned, was sent from Sackville’s personal Gmail account to the personal email accounts of political staff.

The Premier’s Office did not respond to a request for comment from Global News.

Private emails and public direction

In several instances, Sackville shared confidential government-related documents including yet-to-be-tabled legislation, allowing political staff to weigh in on provincial policy.

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In some instances, Sackville appeared to give official direction over Gmail and openly discussed “political decision points” in other emails.

Global News obtained a number of examples in which Sackville shares Google Slide decks to allow government staff to view and weigh in on provincial policy. Global News

The emails viewed by Global News directly contradict Sackville’s comments to the integrity commissioner, in January, after he handed over a Greenbelt-related email fished out of his private account.

“I do not conduct government business on my personal e-mail,” Sackville said in a letter published by the integrity commissioner’s office.

Sackville also told the Auditor General, during the 2023 Greenbelt investigation, that the government was setting up a process to ensure “exclusive use” of government email.

“We also accept your recommendation to implement an attestation process to confirm the exclusive use of government email platforms,” Sackville said in August 2023.

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The Premier’s Office, however, later acknowledged that Google-based products are used by the government for business-related discussions.

“Google products like Google Docs have at times been used to support collaboration on materials or for political discussions,” the spokesperson told Global News in a statement.

“These materials have corresponding records on government networks and decisions or direction that inform government business are always provided through government networks, through government email and during official government briefings.”

Government policy on use of private email

In February 2023, the Ontario government updated its policies on the acceptable use of provincial devices and clearly laid out how staff are expected to conducted themselves while handling government information.

“Government work should be done on assigned OPS IT resources. With manager’s prior approval, a personal computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone may be used for unclassified or low sensitivity government work,” the document reads.

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“Medium and high sensitivity information must only be accessed on assigned OPS IT resources where the necessary security safeguards have been implemented.”

In 2016, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) strongly cautioned public-sector employees from straying away from government-issued devices.

“The IPC strongly recommends that institutions prohibit their staff from using instant messaging tools and personal email accounts for doing business, unless they can be set up to retain and store records automatically,” a report stated.

The province’s corporate policies on recordkeeping, access and privacy also outlines what staff are to do with private messages.

“Emails, instant messages and social media messages are records and must be managed according to ministries’ records schedules,” the 2023 IT government document said.

It’s a view shared by Premier Doug Ford who was asked about his thoughts on staff using private email addresses.

“They shouldn’t, plain and simple,” Ford said flatly. “They should be using government-issued emails, it’s simple as that.”

Sackville faces calls to resign

At Queen’s Park, Ford faced calls to fire his chief of staff as the Opposition raised questions about the government’s use of private email.

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“What we’ve seen is government by Gmail,” said Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie. “These Gmails should be available to the Integrity Commissioner.”

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said Sackville appears to have “misled the Integrity Commissioner” in an attempt to hide information from the public.

“I think Mr. Sackville should resign and if he won’t the premier should fire him.”

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