Integrity commissioner's actions 'unacceptable': Fraser

Former integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet behaved unacceptably for a public servant and allegations of wrongdoing against her are justified, an audit by Auditor General Sheila Fraser found.

Christiane Ouimet failed to fulfil mandate

Christiane Ouimet, the former integrity commissioner, acted inappropriately and unacceptably as a public servant, according to an audit released Thursday by Auditor General Sheila Fraser. ((Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press))

Former integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet behaved unacceptably for a public servant and allegations of wrongdoing against her are justified, an audit by Auditor General Sheila Fraser found.

"In our view, [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 wrote in her report released Thursday.

In brief, the report concluded that Ouimet:

  • Had inappropriate conduct and interactions with staff at the Public Service Integrity Commission, or PSIC. 
  • Took retaliatory actions against those she believed had filed complaints about her.
  • Failed to perform her mandated functions.

Ouimet has not commented publicly on the audit. 

PSIC issued a statement on its website Thursday, thanking Fraser for her work but saying it was "not in a position to provide any further comment or information regarding [the report's] findings."

The opposition, however, reacted fiercely to the report.

NDP Leader Jack Layton accused Ouimet of being "short on integrity" herself and called on the Conservative minority government to establish an independent board to oversee similar appointments.

His colleague, NDP MP Pat Martin, said the country had "let whistleblowers down terribly ... by allowing what seems to be a reign of terror in an office run by a despot."

"It underscores the fact that the whistleblower legislation was words not supported by deeds," said Liberal MP Joe Volpe.

The federal government created the PSIC in 2007 to protect "from reprisal public servants who have disclosed wrongdoing and those who have co-operated in investigations."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper nominated Ouimet as commissioner on June 12, 2007, saying her "unique combination of skills and experience [would] serve her well as she leads the implementation of the new regime for the protection of whistleblowers."

Ouimet began her term on Aug. 3, 2007. She resigned from office on Oct. 18, 2010 — two days before the audit of her office was made public.

Complaints prompt investigation

Fraser's office began investigating Ouimet after receiving three separate complaints between Nov. 28, 2008, and July 17, 2009.

Auditor General Sheila Fraser found former integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet had retaliated against employees she believed had complained about her. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Over the course of the audit, the auditor general's staff met with 34 current and former PSIC employees, as well as with senior government officials and third parties. They also interviewed Ouimet on Dec. 2, 2009, and Sept. 13 and 14, 2010.

Among the allegations was that Ouimet "yelled, swore and also berated, marginalized and intimidated certain PSIC employees, and that she engaged in reprisal actions," the audit says.

Other employees said Ouimet marginalized them by removing them from the decision-making process and communication networks, overloading or removing their workload, or ignoring them altogether.

The negative work environment fostered by Ouimet resulted in what the audit calls "a high level of turnover." Twenty-four employees left PSIC between August 2007 and July 2009 — an average turnover rate of 50 per cent.

In her interviews with the auditor general's office, Ouimet denied the allegations about her conduct, saying she acted in good faith and always within the boundaries of government policies. She also accused many of her former employees of being incompetent and unproductive.

But the auditor general's office found emails, documents on the PSIC's shared drive and notes to corroborate the complaints.

Retaliation against complainant

In one case in particular, the auditor general's office found that Ouimet violated Canada's Privacy Act when she "undertook a series of retaliatory actions" against a former employee she believed was taking part in the audit. 

According to the report, Ouimet retaliated against the complainant by:

  • Disclosing personal information about him to PSIC, senior government officials and a private sector security consultant.
  • Requesting access to his PSIC personnel file in order to use the information therein to target him in a security investigation.
  • Circulating hundreds of pages and 50 emails containing information about him to at least six PSIC staff members.

She also failed to live up to her obligations under the Treasury Board's policy on privacy protection and Canada's Privacy Act in her response to his request to access his personal information in PSIC's possession, the audit found.

In response to these allegations, Ouimet said she had "acted in good faith at all times and intended no prejudice toward anyone," the audit said.

Ouimet's treatment of staff was just one of two "troubling issues" unearthed by the report, Fraser told reporters.

Ouimet failed in mandate

The other is Ouimet's failure to carry out the mandate of PSIC "to establish a safe, confidential and independent mechanism for public servants or members of the public to disclose potential wrongdoing in the federal public sector."

As part of that mandate, PSIC investigates disclosures of alleged wrongdoing and complaints of reprisal, and protects public servants from reprisal for making such disclosures or co-operating in investigations under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act.

Fraser's report found Ouimet was reluctant to conduct investigations of wrongdoing or to refer complaints to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Tribunal, an independent, quasi-judicial body meant to protect public servant whistleblowers.

According to its annual reports, PSIC received 228 disclosures of wrongdoing or complaints of reprisal between 2007 and 2010. Of those, just five resulted in investigations; none resulted in a finding of wrongdoing.

The auditor general also found that in many cases, decisions not to investigate, or to dismiss disclosures of wrongdoing and complaints of reprisal, "were not supported by either the nature of work performed, the documentation on file, or both."

Treasury Board President Stockwell Day said in question period Thursday that he expected the acting integrity commissioner would "now be reviewing all the cases."