Never told of allegations against me: Ouimet

Christiane Ouimet, whose job it was to protect whistleblowers, paints a picture of her own persecution as she answers MPs questions.

Former integrity watchdog makes 1st public appearance since resignation, scathing report

Former integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet appears at a Commons committee March 10 in Ottawa, to address her troubled tenure. Ouimet resigned in October and received a $534,000 severance package. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The woman whose job it was to protect public servant whistleblowers painted a picture of her own persecution during her time in the role.

Christiane Ouimet, the former public sector integrity commissioner, says her office underwent two years of investigation at the hands of Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

"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 is facing questions at a House of Commons committee over her work and the half-million-dollar severance package she received when she resigned in the midst of Fraser's investigation last fall.

"I tried always to do what is right," she said. "I spoke truth to power."

Ouimet found no cases of wrongdoing in the 228 complaints her office received over the three and a half years she was in the role.

But she said she lost much by leaving her career early.

"I lost seven years income, seven years pension. I lost my reputation, I lost my health," Ouimet, who spent 28 years in the public service, told the public accounts committee.

Ouimet said she came to the committee to answer MPs' questions about her departure. "That's why I interrupted my vacation to rest, so I could answer questions," she said.

Ouimet had ignored earlier requests by the public accounts committee that she appear to answer questions about the auditor general's allegations she didn't fulfill her role and harassed staff.

Ouimet said the auditor general's report into her work has serious flaws and has attacked her reputation.

She argued there's a "profound misunderstanding" of what her mandate was.

"I have real difficulties with the [auditor general's] report in the context of my mandate," Ouimet said, noting Sheila Fraser's report has been accepted without criticism.

The Office of the Auditor General released a statement Thursday saying it stands behind the report.

Ouimet's departure

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 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.

NDP MP Dave Christopherson asked Ouimet why she accepted the non-negotiable offer for her departure. As an officer of Parliament, the government can't fire her without the consent of both the House of Commons and the Senate.

"As I understand it, the decision to leave is still yours," he said. "When you said you didn't leave voluntarily, do you feel like you were fired?"

Ouimet pointed to the audit, which she said was exhausting.

"I felt like I had no choice for the good of the institution, for the good of all agents of Parliament. There were millions of dollars expended in this process," she said.

"For the first time in five years, I have not taken a sick leave, [and] I had to take the month of August."

Acted on 'best legal advice': PM

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked about the severance and the confidentiality clause during an event in Toronto on Thursday.

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

"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."

Ouimet was supposed to protect public servant whistleblowers, but investigated only a handful of the 228 complaints she received over her three years in office and didn't once find a case of wrongdoing.

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.

Bruyea sat several rows behind Ouimet as she addressed the committee. He said she completely lost sight of her priorities.

"She doesn't get the fact that her job was to defend whistleblowers," he said.

'Unacceptable': auditor general

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.

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

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.

"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 are 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."

RECAP: Blog of Ouimet at committee

With files from The Canadian Press