Public Sector Integrity Office a Safe, Independent Agency for Whistleblowers, Says Minister Day

By Jessica Bruno-THE HILL TIMES-October 25, 2010

Christiane Ouimet, Canada’s first federal public sector integrity commissioner, who resigned last week as her office is being investigated by Auditor General Sheila Fraser, will be called before the House Government Operations Committee to explain the situation surrounding her departure.

“The committee agreed that we should call the integrity commissioner because it was very unusual and it leaves a gaping hole in the protection provisions for well-meaning whistleblowers,” said Pat Martin (NDP, Winnipeg Centre, Man.) the committee’s vice-chair.

Ms. Ouimet’s retirement took effect Oct. 18 though staff and the public were not informed until Oct. 20.

The office of the integrity commissioner confirmed last week that the Auditor General is investigating the organization and it is “cooperating fully with the OAG.”

The Auditor General’s office also confirmed an investigation, which was launched after it received complaints about the integrity commissioner’s office. The identity of the complainant has not been made public.

Ms. Ouimet could not be reached for comment, but Sylvie Lecompte, a spokesperson for the integrity commissioner’s office said retiring had been on Ms. Ouimet’s agenda for “a while.”

Prior to her appointment as integrity commissioner in 2007, Ms. Ouimet spent 25 years as a bureaucrat, including in senior posts at Public Works, the Immigration and Refugee Board, the Privy Council and the Public Service Commission, among others.

Ms. Ouimet had completed only three years of her seven-year term, and had just presented the office’s third annual report to Parliament on Oct. 7. In that report the commissioner found no instances of wrongdoing in the public service in the 56 cases brought before her in 2009-2010.

Since the office of the integrity commissioner began its work in 2007, the office has received 170 disclosures of wrongdoing from public servants. The office began investigations in nine cases and it has never found any instances of wrongdoing.

The Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner was created by the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, under the 2006 Federal Accountability Act, as an arm’s length body charged with protecting government whistleblowers. Public sector workers could report instances of wrongdoing, from corruption to mismanagement and harassment, to the office which could then investigate the allegations and help shield the whistleblower from reprisals.

Of the 50 cases the integrity commissioner closed this year, 31 were wrapped up because they were not in the commissioner’s jurisdiction, according to the commissioner’s annual report. This includes four that were closed because another person or organization was also investigating the allegations.

David Hutton, executive director of FAIR, an independent public service watchdog, said he’s “puzzled” by those findings. “We knew that the system would fail but we never thought in our wildest nightmares that it could be made to produce nothing,” he said.

FAIR has compared Canada’s system to whistleblower legislation passed a decade ago in the United Kingdom, which Mr. Hutton said “works reasonably well.”

“They’ve had more than 7,000 claims of reprisal [for whistleblowing] processed through that—1,100 in the first three years alone—and how come we’ve got zero?”

The U.K. legislation protects not just public servants but almost all of its 20 million workers, contributing to the high number of reported cases, said Mr. Hutton. In Canada, only 400,000 public servants are covered.

The Government Operations Committee has had limited contact with Ms. Ouimet over the years, said Conservative MP Chris Warkentin (Peace River, Alta.) who is also vice-chair of the Government Operations Committee. He added that he could not confirm whether the commissioner will in fact appear before the committee as it was decided in an in-camera meeting.

“I guess we’ll see about this if it comes to our committee and there are specific cases we hear about, but it’s all hypothetical and I wouldn’t want to venture into the hypothetical at this point,” he said.

In a letter to The Hill Times in 2008, Ms. Ouimet said, “both public sector employees and members of the public can come to my office in confidence if they believe there has been serious wrongdoing in the federal public sector.”

But, Mr. Hutton said that he has spoken to several people who have had their claims of wrongdoing rejected by the commissioner. “The thing that constantly astonishes me and the people concerned is the sheer confidence which the perpetrators launch down this path. There doesn’t seem to be a breath of hesitation, or caution, or wondering if this is something that they can get away with,” he said.

Sean Bruyea, the veteran’s advocate who found his personal medical files were being circulated by bureaucrats in the Veteran’s Affairs Department in an attempt to discredit him, said he brought his concerns to the integrity commissioner in August 2009.

“She responded in March 2010 that—without investigating, without speaking to me and without seeing not even one page of the 14,000 pages—that she determined that Veterans Affairs did not commit any wrongdoing in my case,” Mr. Bruyea told The Hill Times in an email.

In a letter to Mr. Bruyea explaining her decision, Ms. Ouimet said that “none of the information supports the conclusion that wrongdoing has taken place” and that “it would not be in the public interest to commence an investigation.”

Privacy and Ethics Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, however, arrived at a different conclusion. She looked into Mr. Bruyea’s case and determined this fall that Veteran’s Affairs had in fact violated his privacy rights.

“The big guns come out and in they go and they do things that are blatantly illegal, as in Sean Bruyea’s case, and there’s not the slightest indication of worry that they might get caught or punished, so there’s no deterrent effect at the moment,” said Mr. Hutton. “If you want an agency to be not an effective watchdog you give it poor legislation, you don’t give it a lot of money, you appoint someone who you know is not going to be aggressive.”

There have been indications of internal unrest inside the integrity commissioner’s office, said Mr. Hutton, as almost the entire staff has been replaced in its three years of existence.

Former chief of investigations Normand Desjardins, told Radio Canada Oct. 13 that he decided to retire soon after Ms. Ouimet started the job in August 2007.

“In my case, her approach with me was not the best and I didn’t agree with the way she was addressing me,” said Mr. Desjardins.

Mr. Hutton said he believes that both Mr. Desjardins and himself should also be called before the committee to discuss the integrity commissioner.

“He struggled for a while and eventually his doctor told him that he should stop going to work because he was going to damage his health,” Mr. Hutton said.

When reached, the Treasury Board Secretariat, which is the body responsible for the public service, would not comment on Ms. Ouimet’s retirement.

“The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act has strengthened protection for public servants. I am confident that the Public Sector Integrity Commission continues to be a safe and independent agency for public servants to bring concerns about wrongdoing in the workplace without fear of reprisals. The Auditor General is looking into this matter, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further,” said Treasury Board President Stockwell Day in a statement to The Hill Times.

Until a permanent replacement for Ms. Ouimet is appointed by Parliament, deputy commissioner Joe Friday will be acting as deputy head of the office. When Ms. Ouimet is eventually replaced, Mr. Hutton said he hopes her successor takes a more active role in pursuing the office’s mandate.

“It’s to be someone who is truly independent whose first instinct is not to protect the bureaucracy,” he said.

“It’s got to be someone who will zero in on results. Results mean deterring wrongdoing, it means exposing wrongdoing.”

The Hill Times