Inmates' ombudsman shirked duties, often skipped work: AG

Ron Stewart, the former ombudsman for federal inmates, skipped work and collected $325,000 in questionable pay, Auditor General Sheila Fraser alleges.

The former ombudsman for federal prison inmates often skipped work and collected $325,000 in improper or questionable salary, vacation pay and expenses during a six-year period of his 26 years in office, Auditor General Sheila Fraser alleges.

The latest report by Fraser, whose previous work blew open the federal sponsorship scandal,examined a wide range of government programs, practices and spending. Itfound serious problems with controls ofpublic servants' charge cards and safety regulations at Health Canada.

Ron Stewart, a former CFL football star who retired from the Office of the Correctional Investigator in 2003, repeatedly failed to attend staff meetings, was frequently unavailable to aides and otherwise shirked his duties, Fraser concluded in her report released Tuesday.

"Obviously, he [Stewart] was not at his office a lot and received wages for work he didn't do," Fraser told reporters after the report's release.

She also found that Stewart,who once played forthe now-defunct Ottawa Rough Riders, charged the government for hospitality and travel apparently unrelated to his work, including five trips to cities hosting Grey Cup games, and was awarded hefty bonuses disguised as overtime pay.

The report alleges that between 1998 and 2003, Stewart missed work on 319 days, but billed for them. He alsowas reimbursed $8,000 for two computers the auditor general said he didn't know how to use, but were used by family members at his home.

"The transactions are very disturbing; his behaviour is disturbing, but what I think is even more disturbing is that it did go on for so long and that no one ever reported suspicions of wrongdoing," Fraser said.

The government said it respected Fraser's findings and would seek to recoup any and all misappropriated funds, but added the alleged violations occurred onthe previous Liberal government's watch.

"We're taking these allegations very seriously," Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said Tuesday following the release of the report.

Treasury Board President John Baird said the bulk of the alleged wrongdoings in Fraser's report were "the legacy of slack oversight and mismanagement" of the Liberals.

Fraser said she has referredStewart'sfile to the RCMP to investigate whether the alleged violations warranted criminal charges and recommended a furtherprobe into his entire 26 years in office. None of the allegations has been proven in court.

Fraser's audit of the federal sponsorship program in 2003 led to scandalous revelations of fraud and abuse at a lengthy public inquiry, which proved highly damaging to the Liberals and became a central issue in the last federal election.

Charge cards, safety regulations lax

The latest report also concluded that spending controls on public servants'credit or chargecards were lax at the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency, although the auditor general only founda few instances of direct abuse of charge card spending.

Fraserfound that only about half the employees of the RCMP, CBSA and Correctional Service Canada believe their agencies would take any action if they wereto blow the whistle on ethicalproblems within their departments to their superiors.

"There has to be a culture of values and ethics that promotes the reporting of wrongdoing … and that public servants have confidence that action will be taken when warranted," Fraser said.

The reportalsoraised questions about dangerous gaps in Health Canada's safety regulationsfor products including drugs, pacemakers, cribs and other areas requiring the agency's approval.

The report also concluded:

  • The awarding ofa Canada-wide contract for relocating members of the Canadian Forces was twice botched and meant ordinary soldiers were overcharged for moving expenses.
  • The government wasnot vigilant enough about recouping $82 million in overpayments under the Old Age Security program.
  • A sampling of seven of the 88 information technology projects launched since 2003, worth $7.1 billion, found rampant mismanagement. Many were far over budget and long past deadline.
  • Treaty negotiations with First Nations in British Columbia badly bogged down, with not a single treaty signed as costs skyrocket to $426 million since 1993.
  • Areview of the RCMP'spension and insurance plansuggests more money may need to be recovered. Four officers implicated in abuse will not face disciplinary action because too much time has elapsed.
  • Health Canada badly mismanaged a contract to provide First Nations with health benefits.
  • Cabinet secrecy prevented access to key information about whether the government is properly assessing new spending proposals. The impasse was resolved only on Nov. 6 and will not be fully retroactive.

With files from the Canadian Press