Former disgraced public sector integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet, who defiantly refuted Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s scathing report last week of her office and her conduct on Parliament Hill, may get the chance to tell her side of the story again when she’s called before the House Public Accounts Committee alongside the auditor general.
NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, Ont.) said having the two appear side by side to answer Parliament’s questions will give MPs a chance to “reconcile” the two disparate portraits of the office.
“While this is not a perfect process, it often sheds a lot of light [...] they both know the file, they know the details, they know the procedures, and we’ll be able to stack one set of testimony against the other one,” he said.
Liberal Public Accounts Committee chair Joe Volpe (Eglington-Lawrence, Ont.) said he is working with MPs to schedule both Ms. Ouimet and Ms. Fraser at a joint appearance, as soon as possible, according to a source close to the committee.
“We have a very interesting situation where we’ve got two agents of Parliament with completely opposite views. Obviously Madame Ouimet seemed to be saying that everything seemed to be perfectly fine in her office. Then we’ve got the Auditor General saying that things were in a completely different state of affairs, a much worse state of affairs,” said Conservative MP Andrew Saxton (North Vancouver, B.C.), Parliamentary secretary to Treasury Board President Stockwell Day (Okanagan-Coquihalla, B.C.).
On March 10, Ms. Ouimet finally testified in public to answer questions about the AG’s audit for the first time since she resigned abruptly Oct. 18, three years into a seven-year term and shortly before the AG released her report. Prior to her appearance on March 10, the Public Accounts Committee had been looking for Ms. Ouimet since Dec. 13. Ms. Ouimet did not respond to repeated messages, and the committee tried unsuccessfully to serve her with a summons in early February. Ms. Ouimet said she was in Florida at the time, recovering from the exhaustion she suffered as a result of the integrity job.
Ms. Ouimet received $534,000 from the government for resigning in a “non-negotiable” deal approved by Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters. Ms. Ouimet signed the agreement on Oct. 7, the same day she presented the integrity office’s third annual report to Parliament.
The AG started her investigation of the office of the integrity commissioner in December 2008, after receiving a complaint that Ms. Ouimet was abusive towards staff. The audit found Ms. Ouimet had sworn and yelled at her staff, leaked the personal information of an employee she thought was working against her.
“I absolutely refute having inappropriate conduct with any of my employees,” said Ms. Ouimet.
Ms. Ouimet said that the Auditor General’s Office, which usually examines the government programs and spending, was “outside their expertise” when it came to looking into her conduct in the office.
“I’ve got to tell you this is the only report where there is a clear, clear, discrepancy between the opinion of the auditor general and of the [other party]. I find that to be more than unique, I find that to be disturbing,” said Conservative committee member Bev Shipley (Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, Ont.).
The former commissioner last week made it clear at the committee that she did not believe the AG’s report was representative of her work. She said she was “shocked” by the results of the audit.
“The report of the auditor general contains no details, no analysis, and, in fact, has not included the testimony of key people. I fundamentally disagree with the contents of this report,” she said.
The AG’s report, released Dec. 9, found that since 2007, when Ms. Ouimet was hired, 228 cases of reprisals or government wrongdoing were brought to the office. Only seven were investigated, and the integrity office concluded none were founded. The AG’s report stated that the integrity office closed whistleblowing cases with little or no investigation.
“The Office of the Auditor General of Canada stands behind its report on the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada,” said Ghislaine Desjardins, a spokesperson for the AG, in an email to The Hill Times.
With two such different accounts of Ms. Ouimet’s time as the integrity commissioner, MPs on the House Public Accounts Committee must now sort through both sides of the story.
Ms. Ouimet has put her credibility “on the line,” said Mr. Christopherson.
Liberal committee member Navdeep Bains (Mississauga-Brampton South, Ontario.) said there are “lots more questions” the committee needs to raise with Ms. Ouimet about her conduct.
“Two hundred and twenty eight files and no cases of wrongdoing, there’s definitely some unanswered questions there, and that’s what we want to get to the bottom of,” he said.
Ms. Ouimet told the committee last week that many of the cases before her were outside her investigative scope, but that she pre-investigated each one thoroughly, for weeks or sometimes years, before making a decision on the cases.
“There is a grain of truth in what she says, which is the law gives her a lot of tools to send people away,” said David Hutton, the executive director of FAIR Canada, a whistleblower advocacy organization, who attended the committee hearing along with a number of federal whistleblowers. “But nevertheless, it doesn’t look as if she’s tried.”
When Ms. Ouimet referred cases to the information commissioner, they ended up at the end of a two-to-three year backlog, said Duff Conacher, coordinator of watchdog group Democracy Watch.
“If you’re sitting there and you’re saying, ‘I want to protect a whistleblower,’ you don’t refer it to somewhere where you know there’s a two-to-three-year backlog, you take it on yourself,” he told The Hill Times.
“The big question is, she talked about following the letter of the law, how about the spirit of the law? Of helping people? What did you do to actually help whistleblowers?” said whistleblower and veterans’ advocate Sean Bruyea.
Mr. Bruyea, is a former intelligence officer turned veterans advocate, whose confidential medical files were circulated between hundreds of bureaucrats in an attempt to discredit him in his fight for better compensation for disabled soldiers. He sought out Ms. Ouimet’s help on Aug. 16, 2009.
In a letter signed by Ms. Ouimet, the office declined his case, stating that none of the information he provided supported his claim of wrongdoing. According to Mr. Bruyea, after he made his disclosure no one from the office followed up with him for more information.
Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart later ruled in Mr. Bruyea’s favour and he later settled with the government for $400,000.
Meanwhile, opposition MPs say they won’t let the circumstances of her $500,000 departure slide at the next meeting.
While Ms. Ouimet signed a letter stating she would resign, she said the text came to her directly from the lawyer for the Privy Council Office.
“Why did the Prime Minister’s office, his department, PCO, negotiate this? She says she didn’t resign, Minister Stockwell Day said she did resign, so why the discrepancy?” said Mr. Bains.
At last week’s committee meeting, Ms. Ouimet said she did not resign “voluntarily” but rather she felt she had to for “the good of the office.” The opposition wants to know if this means she was pushed out.
“One of the reasons we make someone an officer of Parliament is so that the government of the day can’t put pressure on them,” said Mr. Christopherson, adding that “Parliament does the hiring, it should do the firing.”
Mr. Saxton said that the government “sought legal advice” when it drafted Ms. Ouimet’s departure agreement, and that she was not fired, but left of her own free will.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Centre, Alta.) said last week to reporters that the severance package was the “best, the cheapest and fastest way to make a change” in the office.
“The follow-up question from her, you would think, would be, on what grounds are you firing me? There hadn’t been an auditor general’s report released at that time, so what cause did they have to fire her?” pointed out Mr. Conacher.
Mr. Conacher, along with Mr. Hutton, another watchdog agency, also questioned Ms. Ouimet’s assertion that the high turnover in her office—18 of 22 staff members in one year—was due to a few “discontent” employees.
“Were the staff complaining to her about the job not being done properly, and that’s why she got rid of them, or what were they complaining about to her. She said they did not support her, well they did not support her in what? There were all these claims that need to be followed up with a pointed question,” said Mr. Conacher.
Democracy Watch is calling for the auditor general to audit the terms of not only Ms. Ouimet’s severance package, but all other similar agreements that the government entered into with public servants.
“Who knows who else that they’ve done this with?” he said.
Mr. Bains also said that emails between the integrity commissioner’s office and the PCO call the independence of the integrity post into question, and need to be pursued with witnesses from both offices and Treasury Board Secretariat, the department that oversees the public service.
“The fingerprints are all there, are all on top of this, and why was she—an independent officer of Parliament—not keeping an arm’s length between her and the government?” said Mr. Bains.
“The question has to be asked: what did you do to help whistleblowers? Not, what did you do to follow the law? Not, what did you do to file in accordance with Treasury Board and their departmental reporting procedures. What did you do to help whistleblowers? And she has done nothing to help whistleblowers,” said Mr. Bruyea.
The Hill Times