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There was something in an email sent by a private investigator that prompted a scare within the Calgary offices of Canada's pipeline regulator.
The private eye sent the message to the National Energy Board's then-head of security, Lee Williams, in the middle of the night on Aug. 25, 2015. It detailed information from a meeting between security officials at the regulator and representatives of the consultant's private security firm.
Within three days, a vice-president of the National Energy Board (NEB) instructed information technology staff to delete the message.
"Please remove email from a third party sent to Lee Williams on Tuesday 25 August at 2:40 a.m.," NEB vice-president Meghan Ruholl wrote on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 28, 2015.
But instead of disappearing, the missing message mushroomed into a series of controversial stories about the NEB, and a federal investigation into whether the regulator broke the law in an effort to hide embarrassing secrets.
Now, new details have emerged about the contents of the deleted email as a result of efforts launched in 2016 by National Observer to obtain a copy of the message through Canada's main transparency law, the Access to Information Act. National Observer filed a formal complaint after learning about the deleted message, prompting the federal investigation led by the Office of the Information Commissioner.
The information watchdog eventually recovered the message, revealing that the NEB was rocked by allegations that one of its employees had exhibited "unusual behaviour" at the regulator's Calgary headquarters. It was behaviour that led co-workers to fear for their safety, according to the email.
It isn't clear whether any of these fears and concerns were justified. In fact, another document shared internally by the NEB indicates that the reason it deleted the email from the NEB's server was to avoid "undue embarrassment."
Information watchdog recovered deleted email during investigation
Despite efforts by the NEB to delete the message, the federal information commissioner's office recovered a copy of the correspondence from another source — most likely the security firm which sent the email — Lions Gate Risk Management Group. The commissioner's office then sent a copy of the recovered email to the NEB, forcing the regulator to process the record under access to information legislation.
By law, federal government organizations must preserve public records of business value, but federal rules and guidelines allow officials to delete records considered transitory.
Under Canada’s access to information legislation, federal officials must also make records available to members of the public, upon request, unless they have a valid reason to refuse access. Avoiding embarrassment is not considered to be a valid reason for turning down a request for access to records.
The transparency law also says that anyone who deliberately attempts to obstruct this right of access is guilty of committing an indictable offence, punishable by up to two years in prison or fines of up to $10,000.
'Unusual behaviour' led to concerns about workplace violence
There hasn't been any evidence that someone intentionally tried to hide or delete records, and the NEB told National Observer it had no comment in response to a question asking whether it had violated access to information legislation. But after taking a second look at the email in question, the NEB admitted in a letter to National Observer that someone made a mistake.
The NEB sent the letter and a partially-censored version of the email and proposal from the private security firm after being pressed about the matter by the ongoing federal investigation by the information commissioner's office.
Aziz Khadem from Lions Gate sent the email to Lee Williams and another security official at the NEB. Canada was also in the middle of an election campaign during this period, with the reputation of the NEB and federal oversight of major industrial projects being a contentious issue.
A separate report, distributed internally at the NEB, would later reveal that someone inside of the regulator recommended that the August 2015 email and attached proposal "should be immediately deleted from the NEB server" in order "to prevent potential embarrassment to the NEB" and employees involved.
So if there was information in the email that could embarrass the regulator, management may have had political reasons for wanting to prevent it from being released publicly.
Khadem wrote in the Aug. 25, 2015 email that he was submitting a proposal for a workplace violence threat assessment in response to a meeting that he had held with the NEB security officials in the previous week.
At that time, Khadem was a vice president in Alberta for Lions Gate.
The attached proposal recommended a series of investigative tactics to look into the matter further, including interviewing employees. Lion’s Gate also proposed other investigative techniques, but the NEB censored details prior to releasing the email.
The proposal included an estimated cost of the assessment of about $12,000.
“The request was initiated as a result of unusual behaviour observed of an employee at the NEB office, causing general concern for staff safety among several employees,” Khadem wrote in the three-page proposal to Williams. “Upon the National Energy Board (NEB) Security Group being advised of the above noted safety concern, it was determined that a Workplace Violence Threat / Risk Assessment should be conducted in order to proactively manage the employee, (censored) actions, and (censored) behaviour.”
The censored email and proposal don't reveal the nature of the "unusual behaviour." But whatever was in those files may have spooked someone in management to take action, prompting the email from Ruholl, the NEB vice-president, that instructed staff to delete the files.
Khadem and Williams did not respond to requests for comment sent by email, phone and through LinkedIn. Khadem later left Lions Gate in June 2017 to do other security consulting work, according to his LinkedIn page. Williams left the NEB in 2018 to join another private security intelligence firm called Welund. Ruholl is now listed as a director at the NEB, according to a government directory. She also did not respond to a request for comment.
NEB offered conflicting explanations about proposal from Lions Gate
Doug Maynard has been the president at Lions Gate Risk Management Group since July 2017.
"I can confirm that our company was asked to submit a proposal for investigative services to the National Energy Board. As a rule, we don’t discuss matters outside of the client/provider relationship regardless of who the client is," Maynard told National Observer in an email on April 18. "I can confirm that a proposal was sent. I can also confirm that the proposal was not accepted. The reasons for which you will have to inquire with NEB directly. As we were not contracted for any services, we have nothing further to provide you with."
Maynard said Khadem left Lions Gate "to pursue other interests."
Responding to a complaint about its response to the access to information request, the NEB told National Observer that it initially made a mistake in how it had assessed the file, leading to the deletion. It said that part of its concern, at the time, was over whether someone’s private information had been inappropriately shared.
“The OIC (Office of the Information Commissioner) considered this additional record to be of business value. The NEB initially considered the record to be transitory as it was unsolicited, did not reflect what the NEB had requested, and the NEB did not pursue the matter, ” wrote Ryan Hum, the access to information and privacy coordinator, in the April 5 letter to National Observer. “Additionally, the records documented a privacy breach, which the NEB mitigated by securing and containing the distribution of the improperly disclosed information. Upon being provided with the record by the OIC, the NEB concurred that the records were not transitory as originally asserted. The NEB has therefore processed this record under the Act and is releasing it further to your request.”
When asked about the potential threat of violence in the workplace, the NEB declined to say whether the employee who allegedly exhibited “unusual behaviour” was still employed at the regulator, explaining that this was personal information under the Privacy Act. It also said it could not comment on whether any employees still had safety concerns, since these are kept confidential under the Canada Labour Code and the Privacy Act.
The NEB has also offered some conflicting explanations about what prompted the proposal from Lions Gate, first suggesting that it was "unsolicited" and later admitting that it was submitted in response to a request.
“The NEB initially met with Lions Gate Risk Management to discuss an internal matter,” said NEB spokeswoman Sarah Kiley, in an April 17 email responding to questions from National Observer. “The proposal from Lion’s Gate included tactics that did not reflect what the NEB had requested, nor what the Board wished to pursue. For these reasons, the email was considered transitory and deleted.”
When pressed about the internal security report that said the email was deleted to avoid "undue embarrassment," Kiley said that employees were expected to follow government policies and the NEB code of conduct. These policies require employees to preserve information with business value, while encouraging them to discard material that is considered to be transitory.
According to an internal NEB reference guide, shared by Kiley, employees must save information that would likely include "significant interactions with the public, regulated and non-regulated parties, consultants, vendors, business partners and other government jurisdictions." The NEB also tells its employees that only about 20 per cent of the information on their desk is of business value, while 80 per cent, including items such as rough working notes, duplicates of information included in final documents, and personal messages, do not need to be preserved.
The guide tells employees that they can delete information if it's "reasonably apparent" that it has no business value, but that it's "unlawful" to delete anything if someone files a formal request for access to the information to obtain it, or if someone is expected to do so.
The office of the information commissioner, now led by Caroline Maynard, has continued to investigate the deleted email and other complaints about the NEB's responses to access to information requests.
These investigations continue as a fierce debate ensues in Canada’s Parliament over proposed reforms to toughen the federal government's environmental oversight of industry, including the replacement of the National Energy Board, with a brand new regulator. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals had promised to reform federal environmental laws in the 2015 campaign, arguing that such changes were needed to restore public trust in the safety of major industrial projects so that they can proceed.
Industry lobbyists and conservative politicians have defended the integrity of the existing system and regulator, saying the government’s proposals have gone too far, while some say the existing proposals are too weak to ensure federal decisions to protect public safety and the environment, based on evidence.
Meantime, the deleted email incident has triggered a series of unusual events at the regulator. In 2016, leaked details about efforts to get rid of the email were among the factors that led management to hire another private investigator to investigate NEB staff to determine whether any employee was leaking information to National Observer. The private investigator hired in this case failed to identify any whistleblowers, although news of this investigation eventually leaked and ultimately resulted in an apology from a senior manager and vice-president in charge of "transparency."
This manager and some other senior officials involved in these incidents have resigned from the regulator.
Williams, the former head of security at the NEB, no longer appears to have any active profile on LinkedIn. But previously, his profile listed substantial experience in security investigations and services for more than a decade in various positions at the regulator, as well as in the private sector and the Canadian military.
"I help organizations reduce business risk and improve resiliency," he said on his LinkedIn profile, before it was deleted.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 12:35 p.m. ET to correct the spelling of the name of Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard.