By: Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press Posted: 21/09/2010 5:12 PM
OTTAWA – Confidential medical and financial information belonging to an outspoken critic of Veterans Affairs, including part of a psychiatrist’s report, found its way into the briefing notes of a cabinet minister.
Highly personal information about Sean Bruyea was contained in a 13-page briefing note prepared by bureaucrats in 2006 for then minister Greg Thompson, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press.
The note, with two annexes of detailed information, laid out in detail Bruyea’s medical and psychological condition.
The documents, for example, contain a quote from a 2005 letter from Bruyea’s psychiatrist that warned his “mental condition is deteriorating and he is now actively experiencing suicidal ideation,” a condition the doctor suggested was the result of the department’s treatment of him.
The March 20, 2006, briefing also contained references to Bruyea’s chronic fatigue syndrome, tension headaches, as well as other medical complaints.
And it divulged details about his pension and what Veterans Affairs spends on his treatment, including number of doctor appointments he had during the previous year.
The note passed through the hands of at least three senior bureaucrats.
Bruyea uncovered the documents as part of a 14,000-page Privacy Act request about himself. He asked for the information in 2007 to discover why certain medical coverage by the department was denied to him.
Among other things, he found his file had been accessed by hundreds of federal bureaucrats, including policy-makers.
Bruyea, who provided a copy of the material to The Canadian Press and gave the news agency permission to cite the contents, said the more he pored over the documents, the more alarmed he became.
“There is a culture in that department that thinks that they have the monopoly on deciding what veterans — disabled or not — and their families deserve, and they believe they do not have to take any recommendations, consultation whatsoever from the veterans,” Bruyea said in an interview.
“This arrogance, this paternalism — that they don’t have to listen to veterans in my case — has extended to the point where they believe they can manipulate medical files without the permission of the veterans and send it anywhere within the department to whomever in the department.
“They feel they’re absolutely right in doing so.”
Bruyea has filed a formal complaint with the federal privacy commissioner, whose investigation continues. He has also filed a court challenge, claiming a breach under the Charter of Rights.
Bruyea says his outspoken comments during the former Liberal government likely made him enemies in the bureaucracy, especially his complaints in 2005-2006 about the treatment of wounded vets.
Those concerns, particularly about the replacement of lifetime pensions with a lump-sum payment and qualified monthly stipends, were at the centre of a recent political storm that has dogged the Conservative government.
Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and expert in privacy law, expressed shock on viewing the documents.
Drapeau said it was the worst breach of privacy he’d seen in decades of practising law, calling it “totally, totally illegal” under the federal Privacy Act, which allows for the collection of information for specific purposes.
“The way I read the briefing note, it clearly comes across that this is a way to impune his reputation and to come across as someone who is less than stable, less than able to speak confidently and accurately about veteran’s issues,” Drapeau said in an interview Tuesday.
He said the private information was originally collected to determine Bruyea’s eligibility under a disability program, “not for political warfare to try to silence a critic.”
Officials at Veterans Affairs were not immediately available for comment.
Before the appointment of a veteran’s ombudsman in 2007, Bruyea was one of the most recognizable faces on the issue of care for injured soldiers. He also spent 14 years with the Canadian Forces.
Bruyea was a vocal critic of the Conservative government’s New Veteran’s Charter, especially before it was enacted in the spring of 2006.
According to federal documents, it was his determined opposition to the charter that raised the ire of veterans bureaucrats, who wanted nothing to interfere with the newly elected Conservative government’s implementation of the system overhaul.
In a March 13, 2006, exchange of emails, officials talked about plans to brief Thompson on Bruyea’s opposition and about his Operational Stress Injury.
Minutes from a conference call among officials show their intent was to make sure the new charter, which fundamentally overhauled the way veterans received benefits, was implemented on April 1, 2006, on schedule.
“Folks, it’s time to take the gloves off here,” wrote Darragh Morgan, a senior veterans official.
“It (is) not that this person is spreading misinformation for his own purposes(,) it is that this is … by now creating grave doubts among soldiers who now need to know their government backs them. Snooze ya lose comes to mind. Let’s do something here.”
Bruyea said his opposition to the veterans charter had nothing to do with his battles with the department over his treatment.
On Sunday, two cabinet ministers announced an additional $2 billion to address flaws and shortfalls in the new veterans compensation system. Some of the fixes involve Bruyea’s long-standing complaints.
An analysis by the veteran’s ombudsman’s office last year determined that ordinary soldiers wounded in the line of duty, veterans with families and the most severely disabled of troops are the biggest losers under the new charter.
The privacy documents show 614 people within Veterans Affairs accessed Bruyea’s computer file between 2001 and 2010, records that are kept in a password-protected computer data base. Of those, 156 exchanged varying amounts of personal information, according to a trail of internal emails.
The material appears to have been shared with an additional 243 individuals, including both Liberal and Conservative political staffers, through briefing notes and emails during the 2006 transition between governments.
The document path even went as high as the Prime Minister’s Office when on March 21, 2006, a mid-level staffer called Bruyea and urged to him call off a news conference slated for that day where he publicly urged the Conservatives to hold off enacting the charter.
Outgoing veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran complained bitterly in the summer about federal bureaucrats who run Veterans Affairs, accusing them of being more interested in guarding the public purse than helping wounded soldiers.
Stogran said he was shocked to learn about what had been written about Bruyea. He said the security officer at the department told him around the time of his appointment in 2007 that his own file had been accessed at least 400 times.
Stogran said he thought it was just routine curiosity, but is now wondering.
“I never imagined it would be anything incidious,” said Stogran, whose had his own public spats with both Thompson and bureaucracy before the Conservatives decided not to re-appoint him.
“I know anonymous emails and Facebook entries were made trying to defame my character. I’m wondering now what was going on.”