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NDP minister in trouble for using private emails – and more

Allegations against Jinny Sims go from embarrassing to serious.

Over the course of two days, a series of allegations levelled against NDP Minister of Citizens’ Services Jinny Sims have gone from bad to worse.

On Monday, the opposition BC Liberals introduced a letter from legal counsel representing Kate Gillie, who worked as Sims’ constituency assistant in January and February 2019.

Gillie alleges Sims forces staff to use personal email and messaging services to avoid Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, except for routine business, leaving enough innocuous breadcrumbs so as not to arouse suspicion if someone requests email records from her office.

Gillie says she was reprimanded for sending emails to Sims’ government email, with Sims telling her, “I need loyalty.”

This was embarrassing enough – just last year, Sims was forced to apologize for using her personal email to do government business, and is in fact the minister responsible for Freedom of Information.

On Tuesday, it got worse.

In a separate letter, Gillie alleged Sims asked her to help secure entry into Canada for “10 Pakistani individuals” Sims had written in support of – and was told by Rabina Sattar (named Sims’ fundraising chair) that each was “going to give $10,000 to her campaign.”

“Drop everything and do this,” Gillie says Sims told her. It later emerged that several of the individuals were on US security watchlists, and all were denied entry.

Sims admits writing the letters, asking the federal government to expedite their visa request, and taking personal responsibility for their return to Pakistan. She denied any expectation or agreement they would donate to her campaign, calling it “absolute nonsense.”

The letters contain other troubling allegations – for example, Gillie was apparently required to cover constituency expenses on her personal credit card. These are also serious, but in the interest of clarity, let’s focus on two for now:

Personal emails and FOI

All MLAs and caucus staff are given legislative assembly email addresses, generally [email protected]. These are mostly exempt from FOI requests. However, in Cabinet – and staff working specifically for cabinet minister – are given government emails ([email protected]). These are commonly and informally referred to as “ledge” and “gov” emails, respectively.

It may not seem like much of a distinction, but the gulf between the two is massive – only gov emails are subject to FOI requests.

As a constituency assistant, Gillie would have been given a ledge email. In theory, she would work on non-partisan constituency issues, but in practice, would be one of an integrated team of political staff, from Sims’ ministerial assistants, the caucus communications and research staff assigned to her region, files, and/or critics, and constituency office.

“Anything to do with constituency-based has to be done on the ledge phone,” says Sims, but it’s not clear why Sims doesn’t use her assigned legislative assembly email, but instead uses a personal email, WhatsApp, and iMessage.

“I absolutely am clear with my staff that they are not to use my government email to send me constituency stuff,” says Sims.

Government business conducted on private messaging services, including texts, emails, and instant messages, are still subject to FOI requests – but again, in practice, almost nothing prevents government staffers or ministers from deleting or simply not submitting them.

This “would be a purposeful attempt to try and get around usual FOI requests to usual government emails,” says BC Liberal House Leader Mary Polak.

Gillie alleges she was told to avoid using government email for precisely this reason.

Sims denies advising her constituency assistant to use Sims’ personal email – but admitted to regularly sending staff emails regarding “constituency stuff.”

Campaign contributions for writing a letter of recommendation

This is more serious. Elections BC restricts political contributions to “eligible individuals,” who live in BC and have either Canadian citizenship or permanent residency. Obviously, those who have to apply for visas to visit Canada don’t qualify.

Even if these individuals were eligible, the maximum annual amount is $1,225.17 – quite a bit less than each individual allegedly promised to donate.

Sims flatly denies any expectation of payment – but does admit to writing the letters, not knowing the individuals, and only learning later they were considered security and/or flight risks – at which point she “stopped pursuing it.”

The letters are signed by Sims in her role as Surrey-Panorama MLA, and on legislative assembly letterhead – and reference her role as Minister of Citizens’ Services.

If any of these allegations prove true, Sims faces a rocky road. Her first problems with personal email and FOI caused a significant headache for the NDP and Premier John Horgan, who had made transparency a key election issue. A second strike would be embarrassing enough, but she is also (still) the minister responsible for ensuring FOI compliance across government.

The recommendation letters are potentially more serious. If there was any expectation of payment – from ineligible individuals, and well above the donation limit – charges could be warranted. No matter what, the recommendation letters were written, and at best display a troubling lapse in judgement.

Will it cost Sims her spot in cabinet?

“I can’t see how she could retain her ministerial position,” says BC Liberal House Leader Mary Polak.

In a busy week, with a public inquiry announcement and Beverly McLachlin’s report into the legislature spending scandal, the NDP likely hope this fizzles out. Even if it doesn’t, the NDP need every single vote – and will look for the softest possible landing for Sims.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca