OTTAWA — An alliance of more than 30 advocacy groups is urging the federal government to cancel a severance package worth more than $500,000 paid to a disgraced integrity commissioner after she resigned last fall.
Christiane Ouimet was appointed commissioner in April 2007 and tasked with protecting government whistleblowers seeking to disclose wrongdoing in the federal public sector.
But she abruptly resigned last October, just weeks before the auditor general released a scathing report slamming her for failing to do her job properly.
Last week, leaked documents detailing the conditions surrounding Ouimet's departure showed she walked away with a package worth more than $530,000.
"I can understand the outrage," said Liberal MP Joe Volpe, who chairs the committee investigating Ouimet's performance, and whose members can recommend government cancel the severance package. "We haven't heard from Ouimet to the conditions of the agreement . . . But she quit."
Both Volpe and the alliance of advocacy groups, called the Government Ethics Coalition, point out that severance packages tend to be paid to employees who are fired or asked to leave.
What's more, the alliance said, the average severance in Canada is paid at a rate of one to two weeks pay per year served.
Ouimet worked slightly less than half of her seven-year contract, and received 18 weeks of pay and benefits and an additional 28 weeks' pay for accrued and unused vacation.
The package also came with promises from Ouimet and the government to keep confidential details of her time in office, her departure and severance.
"Perhaps she did everything she was asked to do, and this agreement was part of the terms," Volpe said. "I don't know why she was given this money."
The Government Ethics Coalition is asking Volpe's committee to hear testimony from the government officials who negotiated the terms of her departure, and to recommend government cancel the severance.
Regardless, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner has been seriously compromised, said David Hutton, executive director of Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, an alliance member representing federal whistleblowers.
"Government generously rewarded Ouimet . . . whose misconduct for three years undermined efforts to combat misconduct within the public service," Hutton said in a statement issued Monday. "(Then government) secretly gagged both itself and Ouimet, apparently in an effort to prevent the full facts from emerging. It is still refusing even to promise meaningful action to fix its discredited whistleblower protection system."
Auditor General Sheila Fraser's report found Ouimet's office — which has an $11-million budget — investigated only five of 228 complaints filed during Ouimet's three-and-a-half-year tenure. No instances of wrongdoing were uncovered by Ouimet.
Ouimet also berated, intimidated and yelled and swore at her staff, the report said.
The Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner is one of several watchdog offices whose heads are supposed to report to Parliament, not the government.
Seven of the watchdogs — some whose performance has also been scrutinized recently — recently sent a letter to the House, urging stronger parliamentary reviews of their appointments and performance.
The Government Ethics Coalition is comprised of 31 groups with a total membership of more than three million Canadians.