Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Mario Dion says a watchdog group’s public criticism of his agency has undermined its work and discouraged government whistleblowers from coming forward. The Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR) has been ordered removed from the integrity commissioner’s advisory panel.
The Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner was established in 2007 to protect federal whistleblowers and investigate their claims. Last week, FAIR’s director described the commissioner’s office as a “black hole” into which public service whistleblower allegations too often disappear.
David Hutton’s comments appeared in a letter-to-the-editor published in last Saturday’s Citizen.
The letter came in response to a Federal Court judgment that slammed the investigative work done by the commissioner’s office in one whistleblower case. Justice Anne Mactavish said the agency’s probe into the reprisal complaints of public servant Charbel El-Helou lacked both fairness and thoroughness.
In his letter, Hutton said the judge’s findings mirrored frustrations shared by more than 30 whistleblowers who have approached FAIR, a registered charity, for help.
This week, Hutton received an email from Mario Dion, informing him that he was being turfed from the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (PSIC) advisory committee.
“Constantly undermining the work of the office in the media and before parliamentary bodies and in doing so discouraging potential whistleblowers from coming forward,” Dion wrote, “is inconsistent with the role of a PSIC advisory committee member.”
Two other members of the same advisory committee are now threatening to boycott the panel unless FAIR is reinstated.
Allan Cutler, president of Canadians for Accountability, said his organization has levelled similar criticisms at the integrity commissioner and could be targeted next.
“It’s an interesting that an organization that is supposed to be promoting openness and transparency is actually closing down openness and transparency on its own committee — just because they’ve been criticized,” said Cutler.
He said an advisory committee is worthless unless its members can speak openly and honestly.
Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, said he was shocked by the commissioner’s action against FAIR.
“The fact of the matter is that nothing David (Hutton) said was wrong or dishonest,” he said.
A spokesperson for the integrity commissioner, Edith Lachapelle, could not point to specific mistruths employed by Hutton. But Lachapelle maintained that Hutton has manipulated numbers, and has used “insinuation and exaggeration” in his criticism of the agency.
“Basically the decision was not based on truth or lies,” said Lachapelle. “It was based on the constant undermining of our efforts to provide public sector employees, and as a result Canadians, with an effective disclosure regime.”
When it was formed in May 2011, the integrity commissioner’s advisory committee had 14 members. It meets three or four times a year.
FAIR’S David Hutton called Dion’s move disappointing and misguided.
“We really do try hard to be fair,” he said. “We’re not setting out to be a gadfly, but we have to reflect accurately what we know and what we hear from whistleblowers: they have no other voice.”
What’s more, Hutton said, it’s not his criticism that is discouraging whistleblowers, but the commissioner’s lack of substantive results.
“It is Mr. Dion’s own actions that determine whether people will go to his office, not what we say,” Hutton said.
“We have told him that there is just one thing that he needs to do that would, more than anything else, restore the reputation of his office and have high-value whistleblowers beating down his door: he needs to expose some serious wrongdoing and to ensure that those responsible are sanctioned.”
In December 2010, the auditor-general issued a scathing report that said then Commissioner Christiane Ouimet had done little to help public servants expose corruption and waste.
Dion replaced Ouimet, who retired just before Fraser’s report was published.
Related: Madam Justice Mactavish's ruling (pdf)