Canada | Politician Emails Lost?
Which employee wants to be the target of a criminal investigation into whether public record e-mails were wrongfully destroyed? Observers of a political corruption lawsuit in British Columbia were shocked to learn that – while the well-known lawsuit was pending – IT employees destroyed backup tapes containing key e-mails by executives (i.e., government officials negotiating the sale of the then-government enterprise, BC Rail).
This kind of news sounds sensational in the press. The public naturally wonders what the justification was for erasing records. How much does it cost, citizens ask, just to retain some tapes a few more years? Did someone apply a record destruction policy as a convenient way to eliminate embarrassing evidence? Should the employees not have observed a "legal hold" (also known as "litigation hold") on the records?
Such destruction of records, during an on-going prosecution, could be grounds for a criminal investigation into obstruction of justice, said a local expert quoted in the BC news media.
Such destruction of records may also qualify as spoliation, worthy of sanctions by a court.
Easy to Write Policy | Hard to Follow
In the field of records management, it is easy to write a policy that says an enterprise will destroy records like email regularly, but will apply a "legal hold" when a lawsuit or investigation arises. However, in practice, to institute a legal hold is hard. It is hard for the responsible employees to understand when and where they need to apply a litigation hold.
Consider this issue from the perspective of employees in government agencies or other large enterprises. They don’t want to do anything illegal. But for an employee to stay fully informed of all pending lawsuits and investigations (even well-known ones) can be very difficult in practice. Many employees who have control over email records do not know all of the matters to which they many pertain.
From the perspective of employees, the safer course of action is to retain electronic records of executives generously, for a long time. Modern technology is causing the cost of email retention to drop. To retain a lot of e-mail is not as expensive as retaining a lot paper holding the same content.
Mr. Wright teaches e-records management and cyber investigations law at the SANS Institute.