Investigation into lost NB Housing master key ordered

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Minister of Families and Children Stephen Horsman has requested an investigation into why it took so long for it to be made public that a set of custodial keys for NB Housing units in Saint John disappeared.

Horsman, who is also deputy premier, announced the investigation in the legislature on Wednesday, just days after CBC News reported the keys vanished Feb. 13, but NB Housing only filed a report to Saint John police on March 22.

The lost keys included a custodial key capable of opening hundreds of individual apartments.

"When I became aware of this situation just last week, I instructed the deputy minister of social development to make sure there's an investigation done as to why and how this occurred," Horsman said during question period.

"We want to make sure that the people living in NB Housing units are safe. We've contacted the police, we've contacted to make sure that there's extra security around those locations.

"And we've also gone out to the people living in those houses to ensure of their safety and [that] they felt so."

​Tenants received undated notices in their mailbox that informed them a set of keys had been recently lost, and their locks would have to be changed.

"The safety and security of all our tenants is very important," the notice said. "Therefore, we will be changing the locks on your Public Housing unit as soon as possible. Additional security will be placed around all affected buildings until all locks have been changed."

It's unclear how many units were affected or where they were located, other than in Saint John. The cost of fixing the problem is also unknown.

2nd 'privacy breach'

The lost keys come on the heels of a similar "massive privacy breach" in July, when a briefcase "filled with keys, names of people and phone numbers" was stolen, affecting nearly 600 people living in housing units in Fredericton and up the valley to Woodstock, said Saint John Lancaster MLA Dorothy Shephard.

"At the time, the current minister of families and children told media his government would be working to prevent similar situations from happening in the future," she said.

"Unfortunately, now nine months later, we have a similar situation in Saint John."

Shephard called on Horsman to explain "what happened this time" and whether there were any changes in procedures after the first incident.

"First of all, I want to tell you that the Department of Social Development and New Brunswick Housing takes the safety and security of public housing residents extremely seriously," Horsman said.

He stressed the keys did not contain any personal information and were unidentifiable, but the department "acted immediately" on learning of the incident March 22, he said.

Horsman could not immediately say what, if any, procedural changes have been implemented but said he would get back to Shephard with the information.

Later in the day, he issued a statement saying the department made "a number" of changes to how NB Housing employees handle keys to units after the theft in Fredericton last summer.

Some of those changes include restricting the number of master keys to a limited number of staff members and ensuring employees sign keys in and out, the statement said.

In addition, lists of NB Housing units and their addresses are no longer distributed to after-hours maintenance staff.

​Last week, Department of Social Development spokesperson Anne Mooers did not acknowledge there had been any delay in reporting the incident. She said the department took immediate action after learning about the master key.

CBC News reached out to Lenny England, 54, who was the custodian responsible for the lost keys, but he said he was unable to comment.