Former Sask. government official says he was told to use private email for sensitive topics

As Premier Brad Wall once again comes under fire for his use of private email for public business, a former assistant deputy minister says he was told that using his personal email account to hide communication on sensitive topics was “the cardinal rule.”

In the fall of 2008, not long after the Saskatchewan Party came to power, Tim Korol was hired by then-minister of social services Donna Harpauer to help tackle some staffing and programming problems for the fledgling government.

Korol, a former police officer and human rights commission investigator, said he was told by Harpauer’s then-chief of staff, Laurie Pushor, “if we had issues that popped up or something that we thought might be a little bit more sensitive then it should be through our own private emails.”

“That was the cardinal rule. I didn’t have very many rules but that was the one that was really important to him,” Korol said, though in an email to CBC, Pushor cast doubt on that claim.

This is wrong. This is not the way we should expect our government to work. – Tim Korol, former assistant deputy minister in social services

Korol said that at the time he asked Pushor why that was the “rule” and “he said we wanted to keep things under the radar from freedom of information requests, and that there was certain conversations that we wouldn’t want others to be privy to and that’s why we needed to use our personal emails.”

Korol estimates more than half of the emails he wrote to the minister’s office during his nine months in that position were from his private account.

Dozens of private emails

Korol said he was not told to archive those private emails and most of them no longer exist.

But he did hang on to some.

Korol gave CBC dozens of emails he received from Harpauer’s private Gmail account. From 2008 to 2014, Korol and Harpauer, who’s now Saskatchewan’s minister of finance, discussed many sensitive issues related to ministry staffing and programming.

Korol points out that using private email for government business isn’t illegal, but he said, in hindsight, it is unethical.

“This is wrong,” he said. “This is not the way we should expect our government to work.”

Pushor responds to Korol’s claims

Laurie Pushor

Laurie Pushor, Donna Harpauer’s former chief of staff, says he rarely used his personal email account for government business. (Government of Saskatchewan)

In an email to CBC News, Pushor cast doubt on Korol’s claim that he urged the use of private email for sensitive topics.

“This matter occurred over nine years ago and to the best of my recollection I did not provide such instruction,” Pushor wrote.

In any event, it doesn’t appear Pushor had an issue using his own private email account for official communications.

Korol provided CBC with a handful of 2009 emails he received from Pushor’s Hotmail account. They related to the children’s advocate and media stories about controversy inside the ministry.

Pushor said he rarely used his personal email account for government business.

Harpauer didn’t remember using private email — initially

When CBC first asked Harpauer if she had ever used a private email account to do government business, a spokesperson responded by email that “she couldn’t think of an example when she used a different email address. So, if it has happened, obviously it hasn’t been often.”

When CBC pointed out that it had received dozens of emails Harpauer had written on her private account over a period of six years, Harpauer pivoted slightly, explaining no one should be surprised by this.

“Premier said last spring that most likely all ministers in the past have used other emails and asked all ministers to do their best to use their government emails going forward. I did use another email at times years ago as well,” Harpauer wrote in an email.

Donna Harpauer

Donna Harpauer, former minister of social services, says in the early days of the Saskatchewan Party government she didn’t grasp the distinction between using private and government email accounts. (Trent Peppler/CBC)

Furthermore, she explained, “this was early on in our government and frankly I didn’t make the distinction between the use of a different email and government email. I simply responded to Mr. [Korol] from the same email address in which he first contact[ed] me.”

That’s true in some cases.

However, in others, Harpauer initiated the conversation from her private email and Korol responded accordingly.

CBC asked Harpauer when she learned about the distinction between private and government email. A spokesperson replied on her behalf, adding additional nuance to her answer. “Minister Harpauer can’t find any other instances, and can’t think of any other government official she corresponded with using a non-government email address.”

Even private emails must be archived

Saskatchewan government rules require ministers’ offices to archive all “ministerial records,” a broad term meaning any document or electronic file “created or received by a minister of the government of Saskatchewan that relates to the office of that minister and to the administration of the public affairs of Saskatchewan.”

The Ministerial Records Schedule says when ministers change portfolios they are supposed to do one of two things with those records:

  1. Pass them onto the new minister.
  2. Send them to the provincial archives for storage.

In Harpauer’s case, she indicated she still has the emails somewhere, though she has changed ministerial portfolios many times since 2008.

“Under legislation, ministers are required to archive any emails or other government records after they leave office. I will be archiving all applicable materials once I retire from politics,” she wrote to CBC.

CBC asked Harpauer for some proof that she still had all of the emails she exchanged with Korol. A spokesperson replied “Minister Harpauer is in the process of recovering them.”

Private email vs. public accountability

The issue of politicians using private email for government business has become a hot topic in recent years.

Former U.S. presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, has been dogged by concerns around her use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state.

More recently, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has come under fire for his use of a private email account while conducting government business.

The issue of using private emails for government business is not just prominent in the U.S.

In 2015, British Columbia’s privacy officer wrote a report that revealed a culture of deleting emails in the provincial government, in order to skirt freedom of information laws.

A 2013 investigation by Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner found that a chief of staff in the Ontario government had been indiscriminately deleting emails. Two former senior government officials now face criminal charges in that case.

“Without a written record of how key government decisions are made, transparency is undermined and the basis for its policy choices may be shielded from public scrutiny,” wrote Ann Cavoukian in her report. 

Korol became uncomfortable with email secrecy

Korol said initially he went along with the use of private email willingly, but over time he became uncomfortable with it

That’s in part because previously, in his role as a private human resources worker worker, he would often get frustrated when investigating government files. 

“I’d run up against these roadblocks where you know there should be a paper trail,” Korol recalled. “But where is it? Why does it stop here?”

They keep saying they work for us. Well if they do work for us, we don’t want you to be hiding these things. – Tim Korol

“Once I got into executive government I began to understand what was being done and that was one of the issues that I had raised previous to me leaving.”

He said in social services management he continually instructed staff to carefully document everything they did.

But he said that careful preservation of government records didn’t always extend to the highest levels of the organization and that inconsistency bothered him.

“That’s patently wrong. That’s clearly not what we set up western government to be like, right?” he said.

In June 2009, Harpauer dismissed Korol after nine months on the job, citing a lack of progress in fixing the foster care system.

Korol said he decided to speak publicly after recent revelations about Wall’s use of a private email account. Recently, the NDP has called on Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner to review the premier’s practice in this area.

“They keep saying they work for us,” Korol said of the provincial government. “Well if they do work for us, we don’t want you to be hiding these things. We need to find out what’s going on and hold you accountable.”

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