Canada's former public sector integrity commissioner is walking away with more than half a million dollars in salary and benefits, newly released documents show.

Christiane Ouimet, who quit last fall in the middle of an audit of her office by Auditor General Sheila Fraser, is getting a package worth 25 months salary, plus benefits and whatever remaining holiday time she had.

Ouimet's 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 disclosure put Ouimet under fire once again, a week before she's due to appear at a House of Commons committee to explain why she investigated only a handful of the 228 complaints she received over her three years in office.

Opposition MPs took aim at the severance package during Friday's Question Period.

Bloc Québécois MP Richard Nadeau demanded the government release the terms of Ouimet's agreement, while Liberal MP Navdeep Bains alleged Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been telling Ouimet what to do.

"Can the prime minister confirm that he paid Ms. Ouimet hush money to cover up the fact her office was used to bury complaints from public servants?" Bains asked.

Conservative MP Andrew Saxton pointed out the leaders of the opposition parties all approved Ouimet's appointment.

"The government sought and followed legal advice as to the terms of her resignation based on her years of service," Saxton said, adding Ouimet's scheduled March 10 committee appearance is the best place to ask the questions.

Saxton says the interim commissioner is going to start a third-party review of Ouimet.

Liberal MP David McGuinty said the severance package is disgraceful.

"No working Canadian making $45,000 a year can possibly understand how Mme. Ouimet left her employ with a half a million dollars in her pocket," he said.

Actions 'do not pass scrutiny'

In December, Auditor General Sheila Fraser concluded that 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."

Fraser concluded Ouimet acted inappropriately with staff in her office, retaliated against people she thought filed complaints about her, and didn't do her job.

Ouimet, who was supposed to act for whistleblowers in the public service, never found a single case of wrongdoing during her term.

She also 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.

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.

Watchdogs send letter

Thursday, the Canadian Press reported seven independent agents of Parliament sent a signed letter to five Commons committees urging them to more carefully vet appointments to watchdog roles, along with a report on the accountability of parliamentary agents.

Fraser, Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart and Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser signed the letter asking Parliament to learn from what happened with Ouimet.

"While the report of the Auditor General noted serious concerns with the performance of a fellow agent of Parliament, it can also be viewed as evidence that the accountability system works and that there are mechanisms in place to monitor the activities of the agents of Parliament," the letter says.

"It is timely, however, to examine whether the issues reported by the Auditor General could have been identified sooner."

That's a diplomatic poke at House of Commons committees, which the agents say have many tools at their disposal to scrutinize the appointments and work of watchdogs. For one, MPs can ask members of the Privy Council Office, which appoints the officers of Parliament, to appear at their various committees to explain how and why a certain person was hired.

"The fact that agents of Parliament have security of tenure and are removable only for cause on the address of both Houses further emphasizes the need for a rigorous appointment process," they write.

"Accountability mechanisms may not compensate for the appointment of an unsuitable candidate."

And just in case MPs aren't sure what to ask PCO staff about those appointments, the agents provide a list of possible questions, including:

  • Was the vacancy advertised?
  • How many candidates were interviewed?
  • Who was on the selection/advisory committee?
  • What were their qualifications?

The report goes on to describe the different reports that Commons committees could look at to ensure that agents of Parliament are doing their work properly — annual departmental performance reports and internal audit plans and reports as just a few examples.

Ouimet's interim replacement, Mario Dion, also put his name to the document, which describes agents of Parliament as "guardians of values that transcend the political objectives and partisan debates of the day."

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is not on the list of officers who signed the letter.

Accountability of Agents of Parliament E
With files from The Canadian Press