A civil servant who was described as an "autocrat" has been found guilty of "gross mismanagement" by appointing a close friend to a vacant position and billing taxpayers for, among other things, personal massages and flat-screen televisions that were never used.
The Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) manager, who is no longer with the department, violated federal laws by purchasing massage chairs and massage magnets, expensing both as "office supplies," the public-sector integrity commissioner said Thursday, even leaving one of those chairs in a men's bathroom at a satellite office.
Two high-definition televisions were found in the manager's home, two more were found not to have been used and a fifth could not be located by investigators.
The manager falsified travel claims, used a government car on weekends and "created a work environment rife with fear," commissioner Mario Dion wrote in his report, the first time the four-year-old office has found any case of wrongdoing in the public service.
And it will not be the last.
Dion said he expects his office to provide more reports to Parliament by the end of the year. The office currently has 37 investigations on the go.
"This is not the smallest or the largest," Dion said of the case.
"I hope this report will be a clear indication that if you see wrongdoing, you can come forward in confidence."
How much the unnamed manager billed taxpayers isn't clear — Dion's investigators did not tabulate the total amount in order to provide their report to Parliament quickly — nor is whether the person took home any severance after leaving the department.
"This is a very serious matter. We agree with the report and its recommendations and the department has taken corrective action," said Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.
"The file was referred to the RCMP in December 2011 for thorough investigation. We also look forward to further parliamentary oversight on the matter."
Nothing prevents Dion from naming civil servants found guilty of wrongdoing, but he said he couldn't find a "valid reason" to mention the person by name. Nor was the sex of the bureaucrat released.
Those details are needed to not only give taxpayers an insight into what repercussions the guilty party faces, but also to deter other civil servants from following the same path, said David Hutton, executive director of the watchdog group Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR).
"It looks like the bad guys got a soft landing again," Hutton said.
"Unless you not only sanction people appropriately, but make it very public . . . you're not deterring other people from wrongdoing."
The manager oversaw four offices on the Prairies for HRSDC for more than nine years, the integrity commissioner said, and used public money and government resources to aid a side business — a fitness franchise.
Dion found the manager, who was not named in the report, gave their child "opportunities to collect significant overtime," wrongfully disclosed personal health and disciplinary information about employees and failed to follow government standards on securing information.
Dion said the manager was able to get away with many of these activities because there were few oversight mechanisms within the HRSDC.
Dion's predecessor, Christiane Ouimet, investigated only seven of the 228 allegations made during her 38 months as commissioner and found no wrongdoing.
A damning report from former auditor general Sheila Fraser pointed out flaws in the office and the investigative process.
After Dion was appointed interim commissioner, he found problems in 70 of the 228 cases Ouimet handled.
In a report to Dion last month, researchers found that federal bureaucrats worried about reporting allegations of wrongdoing because they feared reprisals, a lack of anonymity and being ostracized by their colleagues.
The report from Dion Thursday found that many employees under the manager were concerned about coming forward for fear that in the small community where they worked, "retaliation might spread outside the office and affect their family members."
A worker came forward in 2010 with anecdotal reports of wrongdoing by the middle manager, as well as receipts and paperwork to show misspending, Dion said.
Hutton said that laws should be strengthened to encourage other whistleblowers to come forward with allegations. The whistleblower law — Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act — is up for review this year.
"This law is absurdly bad. It has major loopholes. It needs a major overhaul," Hutton said.