Whistle blown on whistleblower protector

Former commissioner mistreated staff, failed to do her job: Auditor general report
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/17/2011

Set up to protect whistleblowers in government, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (PSIC) suffered under the leadership of Christiane Ouimet, according to a report from the auditor general of Canada.

The office was created in April 2007 to provide a means for some 400,000 federal public servants and members of the public to disclose potential wrongdoing in the public sector. But the PSIC received 114 disclosures of wrongdoing and 42 complaints of reprisal in the first two years and only three formal investigations were conducted. In the third year, there were 72 complaints (56 of wrongdoings and 16 of reprisals) but only two wrongdoings were closed after an investigation while two reprisals were under investigation.

In addition, three individuals in the office complained to the Office of the Auditor General of Canada about Ouimet herself (who resigned in October) concerning her interactions with staff, reprisals against employees and the performance of her functions. And they were right, found the auditor general.

“Unless we had received those allegations, I think this would have gone on for a very long time,” said Sheila Fraser, auditor general of Canada. “I was surprised that someone in a position like that would be treating their people like that and would appear not to be carrying out their mandate.”

However, this is a very unusual situation, she added.

“Many officers of Parliament carry out investigations every day and do so in a rigorous manner.”

Allegations found to be true

When it came to Ouimet’s mandated functions, a more thorough approach was warranted before decisions to refuse to investigate or to dismiss these disclosures and complaints could be reached, said the report.

“There were no guidelines for staff that had been finalized on how to conduct investigations. Those kinds of procedures we would have expected to be in place long before this,” said Fraser.

Ouimet also took retaliatory actions against an employee she believed was a whistleblower in her office. She disclosed his personal information to a previous employer and senior government officials and tried to gain his confidential information from a previous employer. Ouimet also prepared four binders filled with documents about his character, health and performance and sent out 50 emails about him.

“The commissioner’s behaviour and actions do not pass the test of public scrutiny and are inappropriate and unacceptable for a public servant — most notably for the agent of Parliament specifically charged with the responsibility of upholding integrity in the public sector and of protecting public servants from reprisal,” said the report.

Further damning evidence concerned Ouimet’s behaviour, as she yelled, swore, berated, marginalized and intimidated employees, said the report.

There was also a high level of turnover between the summer of 2007 and 2009 — 24 workers left, for an average of 50 per cent, with many of them senior staff who reported directly to Ouimet.

Mixed responses to report

“It shocked us, it’s much worse than we could have imagined,” said David Hutton, executive director at FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform) in Ottawa. “There’s a systemic problem here. It’s very important we make sure (Ouimet) and her collaborators should suffer consequences… The psychological damage that this does to people is outrageous.”

But it’s not surprising the system that was supposed to protect whistleblowers didn’t work, he said.

“It’s such a badly written law and clearly not designed to succeed,” he said. “We were puzzled that absolutely nothing was happening because, even with such a bad law, you would expect some cases to be investigated, some wrongdoing to be uncovered, some whistleblowers to prevail, but (we heard) nothing.”

But many measures are in place to ensure oversight, including reports on the office’s activities to Parliament on a regular basis through annual reports and corporate reporting requirements, said the PSIC.

“Moreover, the commissioner makes appearances before Parliament’s Government Operations Committee, the Senate’s National Finance Committee, as well as to other parliamentary committees from time to time. Lastly, the Office of the Auditor General conducts a yearly audit of our financial statements.”

Officers of Parliament are given a fair bit of independence from government, which is guarded jealously, said Fraser.

“So the central agencies that would do the kind of monitoring, for example, of human resources or other issues, are very reluctant to intervene for officers of Parliament,” she said. “And, again, it was a new organization.”

Going forward, next steps

As a result, there should be a full review of the work done by the commission in the past three years, said Fraser.

“It’s going to be doubly important for them to ensure the commission re-establishes its credibility and gives assurance to the public, parliamentarians and to the complainants that their complaints have been dealt with seriously.”

As a first step, the PSIC appointed Mario Dion, once associate deputy minister of justice, as interim commissioner.

“We have of course studied the auditor general’s report and it will play an important role in implementing our strategic plan,” said the PSIC. “The first priority for Mario Dion will be to oversee a review of all files using external resources. This will enable us to learn from our past experience and ensure decisions made are fully supported, clearly analyzed and defensible.”

The number of investigations has also increased significantly, said the office, with 15 investigations underway, and a team of expert investigators has been formed to respond to a growing caseload. Processes, guidelines and procedures have also been developed, based on best practices.

While the office only investigates cases where warranted, the interim commissioner will carefully review future recommendations, as well as those arising out of the review of files, said the PSIC.

“We are conscious of the perception held by some of an abnormally low ratio of investigations launched in the past.”

The PSIC also said it has stabilized its workforce, as demonstrated by a turnover rate that has gone from 43.8 per cent in 2007-08 and 54.5 per cent in 2008-09 to 26 per cent in 2009-10 and 20 per cent in 2010.

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