Integrity commissioner probe not finished: NDP

The New Democrats say they aren't finished with an investigation into the work of the former public sector integrity commissioner, even if a committee study was interrupted by the federal election.
Former integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet appears at a Commons committee on March 10, 2011 to address her troubled tenure. The committee had wanted to invite her back with Auditor General Sheila Fraser, but the federal election interrupted its work. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The New Democrats say they aren't finished with an investigation into the work of the former public sector integrity commissioner, even if a committee study was interrupted by the federal election.

The House of Commons public accounts committee was looking at a report by Auditor General Sheila Fraser into the work of Christiane Ouimet, who resigned as public sector integrity commissioner last October.

Fraser's report said Ouimet harassed her staff, retaliated against people she thought filed complaints about her and didn't do her job.

MPs on the committee had decided to invite Fraser and Ouimet to appear at the same meeting, but didn't have a chance to arrange it before the election.

However, Fraser's 10-year term ends May 30, with her replacement expected to be named next week.

But NDP MP Nycole Turmel says the party is going to bring the issue back to committee.

"It is clear to us that we'll bring it back. This is clear," Turmel said. "That is the position of the NDP. In which way and when, I cannot say at this point."

The committee's chair in the last session, Liberal MP Joe Volpe, was defeated May 2, and the Conservatives will now outnumber the opposition MPs, so it's hard to know whether the committee will in fact invite the auditor general's office to appear with Ouimet.

A spokesman for government House Leader Peter Van Loan refused to say whether the Conservatives want to continue the study.

Asked whether they were in favour of bringing Ouimet back in front of the committee, he said in an email that Parliament returns June 2 and committees will be constituted then.

"Committees will decide at that time the topics they will study and the witnesses they will hear from," Fraser Malcolm said.

A spokesman for the auditor general's office said he doesn't know whether Fraser would appear or whether it would be the next auditor general.

"I can't really speculate if the committee's going to ask and who it's going to ask to appear," Ghislain Desjardins said. "The request has to be made first and then we'll see what are the procedures."

"It doesn't really happen often … once every 10 years it may happen," he said, pointing to the officer of Parliament's 10-year term.

"A lot of things that happened before Ms. Fraser's end of mandate are quite new."

'Inappropriate' behaviour

Fraser's December 2010 report concluded Ouimet'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."

Ouimet had been hired as commissioner on a seven-year contract, with a salary range of $182,750 to $215,000. She served three of those seven years and found no cases of wrongdoing in the 228 complaints her office received.

In one case, she decided not to investigate a complaint by veteran Sean Bruyea that his personal medical information was used against him by Veterans Affairs officials. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the minister for the department, later apologized to Bruyea and the government settled a lawsuit with him over the privacy breach.

A Deloitte audit commissioned by Mario Dion, the interim integrity commissioner, reviewed 221 files from Ouimet's term and found problems with 70 of the files. Some files had multiple problems, including insufficient analysis or data to support her conclusions, not dealing with all the problems referred to her and not re-evaluating a decision after receiving new information.

The audit was limited by its scope, according to a group representing whistleblowers, known as FAIR.

"This report dramatically confirms Sheila Fraser's conclusion that Ouimet was not doing her job. But Deloitte's mandate was only to conduct a paper review: they could not fully audit every investigation. OSPIC must undertake a much more in-depth audit to establish how many more cases were mishandled," David Hutton, FAIR's executive director, said in a statement this week.

Ouimet: 'I never knew what were the issues'

Ouimet testified in front of the committee March 10, where she painted a picture of persecution by the auditor general's investigators during a two-year investigation.

"Along the way I never knew what were the issues, what were the allegations," she said. "I was told repeatedly this is a very special audit. We were being treated differently."

Ouimet said she can answer every one of Fraser's points, but she didn't respond in the space allowed for her in the audit report.

Ouimet was testifying at committee about her work and the half-million-dollar severance package she received when she resigned in the midst of Fraser's investigation last October.

She had previously violated an order to appear before a House of Commons committee in February. The committee sent a bailiff with a summons but Ouimet was out of the country.

Her Oct. 14, 2010 departure agreement shows she got a separation allowance of $354,000, equal to 18 months salary, $53,100 in foregone benefits, pension and other claims, and another 28 weeks of salary, worth $127,000, plus her remaining vacation leave.

That works out to about $534,100.

The agreement also includes a confidentiality clause, which opposition MPs say equates to paying her hush money. They allege she was following government orders not to investigate allegations of whistleblower abuse.

"Obviously there was an auditor general's report very critical of her performance and the government sought legal advice on what to do," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters in March.

"The fact of the matter is the public service integrity commissioner is an officer of Parliament who does not report to the government. The government does not have the legal recourse to fire an individual in that position," Harper said. "So the government accepted advice from its lawyers [on] what was the best, the cheapest and fastest way to make a change so that office could get on with doing the job it's supposed to be doing. That's the advice we operated under."

"We accept that it is not a good situation, but our power to act was limited and we accepted the best legal advice we had in terms of making a change."