They’ve been found—all 271 of them.
THERE HAS BEEN A DEVELOPMENT in Focus’ effort to determine why Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins decided to support then-Chief Frank Elsner in the face of credible allegations of sexual harassment brought against him by employees of the Victoria Police Department.
Let me refresh your memory on what’s at issue: On December 4, 2015, the mayors were asked by reporters if Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner was under investigation. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told the reporters, “No. The Board has full confidence in our chief. He’s the best thing to happen to this town and Esquimalt for a long time.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps (l) and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins
Over the next two weeks, however, it emerged that Elsner had been the subject of an internal investigation conducted by the two mayors under their authority as co-chairs of the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board. The allegations against Elsner were eventually investigated by members of the Vancouver Police Department and adjudicated by two retired judges. The entire process was carried out under the authority of Police Complaint Commissioner Stan Lowe, and led to Elsner receiving a lifetime dismissal from policing.
The details of that decision were contained in a report Lowe released just before the 2018 civic election. As well as detailing the particulars of why Elsner was banned from policing, Lowe excoriated the mayors for mishandling their investigation. Lowe reported that the mayors “had predetermined the outcome of the internal discipline process from the outset, and set about navigating a course to allow the former chief to remain in his post.”
In an interview with the Times Colonist’s Louise Dickson following release of Lowe’s report, Helps complained it “feels like character assassination…I’m going to have someone look at the report carefully and see if it’s defamatory. It feels defamatory.”
Perhaps the most serious of the allegations made by Lowe about the mayors—aside from the fact that they had lied to reporters and the public about whether an investigation had even taken place—was his assertion that the mayors had tried to hide from him additional allegations against Elsner of sexual harassment of Victoria Police Department employees.
Helps and Desjardins denied this. Why, though, would Lowe make such a claim unless he had a step-by-step record of how the mayors had come to their decision that Elsner was “the best thing to happen to this town and Esquimalt for a long time”? Helps had offered that assessment in spite of knowing that sexual harassment allegations against Elsner had not been investigated.
Focus decided to be the “someone” in Mayor Helps’ publicly expressed desire to “have someone look at the report carefully and see if it’s defamatory.”
Following Helps’ complaint, Focus filed an FOI for all of the two mayors’ communications with each other during the three-month period of their internal investigation.
The public has a right to know how elected officials make the decisions they do. This right is enshrined in access to information legislation, and public officials are expected to keep a comprehensive record of how they conduct themselves in the execution of their duties.
Of course, that’s in the dream world. In the real world, none of that is true.
In response to our FOI, the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board released a set of records that was suspiciously incomplete. Without any prompting from us for an explanation, the Board’s FOI analyst Collette Thomson informed us, “A limited number of records were accessible due to email retention schedules.”
By that, she meant the emails between Helps and Desjardins had been deleted; Thomson later conceded that the Victoria Police Board, in fact, had no written “email retention schedules” at all.
What, then, had happened to the record of the two mayors’ communications as they had worked their way through the Elsner investigation? Had they really been deleted? If so, by whom, and why?
Naturally, we filed a second FOI. In the City’s response to our second FOI were several emails that had not been provided by the Police Board’s response to our first request. One was from Helps to Desjardins answering an email from Desjardins that had been released to us earlier.
In that earlier email from Desjardins, she had said, in effect, the new allegations of sexual harassment against Elsner required a new investigation. She suggested they could use the same investigator, Pat Gallivan. The new email showed Helps had responded to Desjardins: “I am happy to have Pat do this. I regret that we have to do this at all.” But “this”—an investigation—never happened.
Helps’ response to Desjardins made two things evident: First, the City did have emails relevant to the Elsner investigation that the Police Board had told us had been deleted. Secondly, it’s evident that what Helps has said publicly about the second set of allegations against Elsner—that the mayors didn’t pursue these because they did not have a mandate to do so—was not the mayors’ first position. How did it happen, then, that the mayors backed away from acceptance that the new allegations had to be investigated, to later trying to hide the allegations of sexual harassment from Lowe?
Armed with this email, Focus filed a complaint in early January this year with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner: The Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board and the City of Victoria had either wrongly deleted emails, or had wrongly claimed that emails had been deleted. Our case was assigned to Trevor Presley, a senior investigator with OIPC. Presley took our complaint to the City. About two months later, Presley informed us: “After the City received your complaint, Mr Gordon [the City’s FOI analyst] conducted a second search, including searching for deleted emails. The long and short of it is that he found 271 emails plus 152 pages of attachments which he believes are responsive.”
Hopefully, in those 271 emails and 152 pages of attachments is the record of how the two mayors moved from accepting that a second investigation was necessary, to denying that any investigation had taken place at all.
As of the time of this writing, Presley could not say when these records would be released. “Due to the sensitive nature of the emails,” Presley informed us, the Victoria Police Board needed time to examine and redact them. “Although the delay is unfortunate, due to these records just being uncovered, we have to give them time to process them,” Presley informed Focus. “I’m sorry I cannot give you any firm timelines here.”
Keep in mind that Focus is trying to confirm whether or not Police Commissioner Lowe’s report on how the mayors handled their investigation was accurate or not, a question Helps raised in public. Some might deduce that if there was evidence that Lowe was wrong, it would have been produced by now. That we are now waiting for the Police Board to resurrect emails that had once been deleted might be all that needs to be understood about the truth of the matter.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.