Politics·Exclusive

Former military ombudsman claims DND vendetta drove him into retirement

CBC News has learned Canada’s former military ombudsman and three of his staff members were subjected to an internal defence department review in 2017-18 - an investigation the retired watchdog says was a political and institutional vendetta. Gary Walbourne claims the complaints were given an extra push after he and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan had a major, private falling out.

'There comes a point ... when you have to consider whether I could do any further good." - Gary Walbourne

Then-Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne is shown at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on May 4. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Department of National Defence conducted a closed-door, wide-ranging review of complaints of mismanagement, nepotism and misuse of public funds in the Office of the Canadian Forces ombudsman last year, CBC News has learned.

The review was instrumental in the early retirement of former watchdog Gary Walbourne, according to recently released Federal Court documents.

In an interview with CBC News, Walbourne said the internal review was a flawed, politically-motivated inquiry intended to isolate and silence him. He also said the process gained significant traction only after a major, private falling out between him and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Walbourne refused to disclose the substance of his disagreement with the minister in the late winter of 2018, but said it was serious enough that Sajjan refused to speak or even meet with him for the remainder of his tenure.

"It was a stiff conversation between adults that got a little heated," he said. "Going into detail may breach some of the oaths I've taken as Order in Council appointee."

Walbourne said that after his clash with Sajjan — which took place in a private meeting on March 1, 2018 in the minister's Parliament Hill office — he quickly found himself out of the loop.

"Every meeting from that meeting forward was cancelled. There were dozens of them that were set and cancelled over a period of time," he said. "The authorities granted to the ombudsman by the deputy minister's office were altered, changed, truncated, and it just went on and on."

The conflict, he confirmed, led to him asking for early retirement.

"For about the last eight or 10 months I was in office, I sat there without financial or human resource authorities signed off by the deputy minister," Walbourne said.

"So when you take away the tools that allow you to do the job, you can't get an audience with the minister to talk about subjects that are of importance ... So there comes a point in time when you have to consider whether I could do any further good."

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan. (The Canadian Press)

Documents, obtained by CBC News through both the Federal Court and independent sources, corroborate Walbourne's statements about the meeting date and the limits placed on his powers.

The apparent falling out with Sajjan was also the culmination of rising friction between the hard-charging, blunt-spoken ombudsman and the defence department, which had grown increasingly irritated with his repeated public criticisms on a number of topics.

The tension in the relationship spilled out into the public in early 2017, when Walbourne complained of "insidious" behind-the-scene attacks by DND officials. The relationship was so sour, according to a report at the time by The Canadian Press, that Sajjan wrote to the ombudsman in an attempt to smooth things over.

Walbourne's persistent complaints before parliamentary committees — particularly about the problems of transition to civilian life experienced by military members — were greeted with visible irritation by both military and civilian defence officials.

No answers from Sajjan

Sajjan refused to answer questions about Walbourne's allegations and the revelations in the Federal Court records.

The minister's office released a written statement that did not address the issues and said only that he valued "the substantive input, mandate and independence" of the ombudsman's office.

"I am committed to maintaining a positive and productive working relationship with the Ombudsperson and have encouraged him to come to me should he be facing issues in carrying out his mandate," the statement said. "I will continue to value the work being done by the Office of the Ombudsperson and look forward to continuing to work with the current Ombudsman."

Gregory Lick was named to replace Walbourne in November of last year.

The review of Walbourne and three other staff members, according to Federal Court records, was carried out by the defence department's assistant deputy minister of review services.

Probe launched after staffer suicide

It was initiated in response to an eight-page written complaint by an investigator on the ombudsman's team after another long-time staffer killed himself in April 2017.

The former ombudsman was accused under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act of misuse of public funds, inappropriate hiring practices and promotion without competition, failure to accommodate a mental health disability in relation to the death of his staff member, and failure to create a safe and healthy workplace.

Four of the five complaints against Walbourne were deemed "founded."

The allegation of misuse of public funds, involving the hiring of a former journalist to write reports for the office, was thrown out.

Walbourne challenges the remaining findings and denied any wrongdoing.

He said that one of the complaints — of inappropriate hiring — is blatantly false because, while he knew one of the eight applicants for the job in question, he had recused himself from the selection process.

In fact, the staff member, hired in 2014, was vetted by a multi-departmental committee that included an acting assistant deputy minister, a director general from the Public Service Commission and a Department of National Defence human resources executive, according to documents (separate from the court filing) obtained by CBC News.

The defence department was unable to explain how that information was not taken into account in the findings of the investigation against Walbourne.

A former ombudsman's staff member, who left before the complaints were filed, said the watchdog routinely faced pushback from long-time members of the team when he tried to overhaul the office after he took over in 2014.

"Gary sought to professionalize the investigation teams with mandatory training and the standardization of the way systemic investigations were handled, and how the reports were written," said retired lieutenant-colonel Jamie Robertson. 

"This rankled some members of the investigations team — the very same members who were also discontented with the previous ombudsman."

'No-nonsense, Newfoundlander-direct'

The revamp was a priority following a scathing report by the auditor general, who in 2015 criticized the previous military ombudsman, retired major-general Pierre Daigle, over a host of spending and hiring decisions.

Walbourne's approach "was always no-nonsense, Newfoundlander-direct," and that ruffled feathers, said Robertson.

Other staff members under Walbourne faced similar but separate complaints of misconduct.

Melanie Chapman, Nadine Parker and Robyn Hynes were also faulted by the defence department review.

Chapman, the ombudsman's director of investigations, contested the findings against her. She took her case to Federal Court, saying the independent investigators and senior defence officials who sat in judgment never told her the substance of the complaints and denied her the opportunity to properly defend herself.

A Federal Court judge ruled her treatment by defence officials was unreasonable.

"She was not given procedural fairness in the investigation process," Judge Russel Zinn wrote in a July 23 ruling.

"She was not clearly apprised on the alleged wrongdoing, and she was not informed what evidence had been gathered by the investigator. In short, she was not given a meaningful right to be heard or given the opportunity to know the case against her at any stage of this process."

The judge ordered the department to re-examine her case.

'Collateral damage'

Walbourne said he believes the complaints against him and the rest of the staff were handled in the same arbitrary manner.

The investigation, which was conducted by an outside agency before being handed to the head of the defence department's review services, was formally launched in the fall of 2017.

Walbourne said he believes officials seized upon the complaints and made them part of a systematic campaign to discredit his office within the federal government after a series of hard-hitting reports on the transition issues facing members of the military.

Gary Walbourne at work: "The authorities granted to the ombudsman by the deputy minister's office were altered, changed, truncated, and it just went on and on." (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

"I do believe the object of the investigation was me, but this investigation was not just about me," he told CBC News. "There were other members of my staff who I consider to be collateral damage."

The former ombudsman made his concerns about the investigation known to Sajjan when he decided to retire ahead of schedule.

"The process has been flawed from the beginning and activity throughout has been suspicious," he wrote in his March 2, 2018 resignation letter, which was obtained by CBC News. "The names of those accused have been released and are being shared across the environment. A direct attempt to discredit and defame."

Court records filed in connection with the Chapman case make reference to a whisper campaign and show a senior staffer in deputy minister Jody Thomas' office acknowledged discussing the investigation of the ombudsman and his staff with at least nine senior defence bureaucrats.

The revelation, according to the court papers, cost Chapman a shot at the leadership of the military's newly created sexual assault response centre.

The court documents also spell out how the defence department altered and limited the financial and human resources powers of the ombudsman while Walbourne was still in charge.

Robertson said that, throughout his time serving two ombudsmen, he saw both examples of extraordinary cooperation and closed-door bureaucratic rebukes.

It is time for change, he said.

"To be an effective ombudsman you are unlikely to win a popularity contest with the organization you are overseeing," said Robertson.

"Each and every (CAF) ombudsman since 1998 has strongly recommended that the office should report directly to Parliament and should be administratively de-coupled from DND as this gives the department de facto control over financing, [human resources] and other elements that can impact the day to day functioning of the office."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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