Experts see link between Gualtieri, Colvin cases

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Carl Meyer – April 14, 2010

Experts and a former whistleblower are drawing a link between the heavy criticism the government received over its treatment of diplomat Richard Colvin and its recent decision to end a tumultuous 12-year legal battle with a former Foreign Affairs employee.

Joanna Gualtieri exposed profligate waste at Canadian missions abroad in the early 1990s. At the time, she said the department was wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on accommodations for diplomats that weren't being used.

When she filed her reports on the waste, Ms. Gualtieri said her superiors ignored them. When she went public, she alleged her peers harassed and tried to intimidate her. Eventually observers say she was pushed out of the department on unpaid medical leave.

In 1998, Ms. Gualtieri filed a $30-million lawsuit against the department for the alleged harassment, naming a number of managers, including then-foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. An Ontario civil court ruled against her in 2000, but in 2002, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the decision.

Ms. Gualtieri's case was finally set to be heard by the Ontario Superior Court on March 1 following eight years of pre-trial manoeuvering by government lawyers. However, before it could start, a settlement was reached. As part of the settlement, Ms. Gualtieri signed a confidentiality agreement.

The Conservative government was not in power during most of the duration of Ms. Gualtieri's case. However, it has come under intense criticism over the past five months for its treatment of another Foreign Affairs employee.

In November, Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin gave explosive testimony to a Commons' committee in which he said senior DFAIT and Defence department officials ignored repeated warnings throughout 2006 that civilians captured by Canadian soldiers in Kandahar and handed over to Afghan officials were being tortured.

Mr. Colvin said he was forced to appear before the committee after being subpoenaed by a Military Police Complaints Commission and told he could face jail-time if he didn't testify. However, he said government officials warned him he could be imprisoned if he did testify.

After his testimony, the government, led by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, launched a campaign—which included personal attacks—to discredit Mr. Colvin. In addition, the government initially refused to cover his legal costs.

All of this backfired on the government, prompting charges it was trying to bully and intimidate Mr. Colvin and, after he appeared before the committee, trying to get back at him. Former ambassadors took the unusual step of writing a letter to the government over the matter while the media and opposition parties criticized the government for attacking a civil servant.

Allan Cutler, a former Canadian public servant who blew the whistle on the government's payments to Quebec firms in what became known as the sponsorship scandal, said the government may have been trying to avoid having Ms. Gualtieri's information become public.

"Joanna's case was going to come to trial, and then it would have become a public embarrassment much more so because everything comes out," said Mr. Cutler, who is a founding president of Canadians for Accountability.

"Every document, every word, every delay that the government did, all becomes public property once it's in court."

Experts say successive governments have exhibited a pattern of repression when faced with public exposure of potentially explosive information, such as Mr. Colvin's revelations or Ms. Gualtieri's allegations of harassment.

Steven H. Appelbaum, who studies whistle-blowing and organizational behaviour at the University of Concordia's John Molson School of Business, said "there's a whole science" to the question of how an organization deals with whistleblowers. An organization often gets an air of impenetrability, he said, such that "it has its own life," and "winds up doing what it wants to do."

"Anybody who says, 'hey wait a minute, you're polluting,' or 'the research is flawed,' or 'the data you're collecting is not precise,' or what have you—if the organization doesn't want to deal with this stuff, then you wind up having penalties. For most people there are consequences to this," he said.

Ms. Gualtieri started a volunteer organization focused on whistleblower reform called the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR). Current executive director David Hutton said that FAIR hears from someone roughly once a week, with federal public servants being about half of those. He said the most significant aspect of each case is the similarity of the stories.

"It's almost like there's a playbook. When someone is seen as a threat to the organization, the tactics that are used to isolate them and punish them, harass them and force them out of the workplace seem to be so consistent," he said.

Mr. Cutler agreed that it was a pattern, arguing that it was a "government" issue and not a Conservative or Liberal one.

"It does not seem to be getting changed. The whistleblowers in the federal system are not being respected," he said.

Mr. Hutton said Mr. Colvin's case "put the issue of whistleblowing back in the limelight," and as a result, the government "began to feel the heat."

Mr. Colvin himself has rejected the label of whistleblower. After the initial controversy over his testimony hit the news in November, he released a letter through his lawyer where he wrote he was "not a whistleblower," but rather "a loyal servant of the Crown who did his job...working through internal and authorized channels."

As this story went to press, Mr. Colvin was in a hearing at the Military Police Complaints Commission with his lawyer, Owen Rees. Mr. Rees could not be contacted in time for publication.

University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes said Ms. Gualtieri's case may have been one of the few times where the federal government actually succeeded in its push to "kill anything that is damaging."

"In Gualtieri's case it may have worked.... The instinctive reaction is kill the news in any way, shape or form," he said.

John Guenette, who originally sued the government with Ms. Gualtieri, was contacted but declined comment.

When asked about Ms. Gualtieri, departmental spokesperson Dana Cryderman commented by email that "this case regarding a workplace issue was settled" and "the terms of the settlement are confidential."

The confidential terms of the settlement mean Ms. Gualtieri could not publicly discuss any aspects of it, or of her case, with Embassy.

But during an interview at her Ottawa residence, she did emphasize one part of her story open to public discussion—that she wanted to thank members of the public who phoned and emailed her expressing their support.

"I was saved by the kindness, support and loyalty of ordinary Canadians," she said.

Original article on Embassy Magazine website