The results of an investigation by Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Mario Dion into a former Human Resources Development manager who misused public funds and forged another employee’s signature—among a laundry list of other abuses—has been handed over to the RCMP.
“The file was referred to the RCMP in December 2011 for thorough investigation. We also look forward to further parliamentary oversight on the matter,” said Alyson Queen, director of communications to HRSDC Minister Diane Finley (Haldimand-Norfolk, Ont.) told The Hill Times in an email.
The integrity office’s report was tabled March 8. Its investigation found that the woman, who managed four regional Human Resources offices, violated the Financial Administration Act and committed gross mismanagement.
“On several occasions” the manager misused public money and assets, according to PSIC.
The manager used an employee’s departmental credit card and forged her signature without her knowledge. She also used employee passwords to make entries into financial databases without them knowing, according to the integrity office.
Investigators found two flat screen TVs purchased with department money in the manager’s home. One other television hasn’t been accounted for.
The manager owned a company that sold health products including magnetic therapy products and water bottles. She purchased those items from her own business for the department. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the water bottles cost $80 each.
For a fitness centre she had an interest in, the manager stole a government printer and office furniture.
The manager would also claim accommodation meals and incidentals, but she wouldn’t have traveled anywhere.
She also claimed personal vehicle mileage while at the same time using the departmental car as though it was her own, to the point of often keeping at home on the weekends.
The manager also bought personal massages and lunches for staff, and improperly claimed them as “office supplies” or other activities.
Mr. Dion has told HRSDC that its travel expenses oversight was “problematic and questionable,” as a number of claims were missing backing documents. The department also didn’t have a good enough way of checking regional accounting practices or to check up on regional inventory.
HRSDC has since conducted an inventory at all of the offices under the manager’s control and is also in the midst of doing inventories in all 426 of its regional offices. It expects to be finished in October 2012. It has also put more financial oversight mechanisms into place.
In an echo of former auditor general Sheila Fraser’s blistering report on integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet, the HRSDC manager failed to “treat staff with the respect and consideration that are embodied in the in the values and ethics of the department.”
Employees described their boss as “an autocrat and a bully” who threatened those who questioned her with reprisals. The employees were afraid for their jobs if they brought their concerns to the department. Employees also said she yelled at them, used offensive language and “created an environment rife with fear,” according to the report.
She also failed to ensure the privacy of staff members and members of the public who used the department, and to protect the security of information. According to other employees, she would talk about workers’ personal health or disciplinary hearings.
Employee test results, medical information and other sensitive documents were not stored properly, investigators found.
The department was also to blame for the situation, as it failed to make sure that staff in the Western Canada and Territories division was following procedures on the handling and storage of sensitive information, according to the integrity office.
Mr. Dion’s report contained a number of recommendations to the department on how to deal with situation, including recuperating costs and property, as well as dealing with the holes in oversight exposed by the wrongdoer’s actions.
The department has already responded to the recommendations and is putting a number of them in place.
HRSDC has told the integrity office that it has recovered all government property from the manager, and that it is in the process of having the manager pay them back for inappropriate use of her work BlackBerry.
But the sanctions seem to stop there, and that isn’t enough, said David Hutton, the executive director of FAIR, a whistleblower advocacy group.
“My understanding is that the person just retired, and then the government decided that he or she was beyond their reach. That’s simply not acceptable,” he said.
Human Resources did not confirm the nature of the manager’s departure from the department, only that she was no longer an employee.
Duff Conacher, the founder of government watchdog organization Democracy Watch, said that the manager should be prosecuted for her violations of the Financial Administration Act, and that she should be named publicly.
“There is nothing in the Privacy Act that prevents this disclosure and the public has a clear right to know,” he said in a news release.
NDP MP Jean Crowder (Nanaimo-Cowichan, B.C.) said she thought it was unusual that the wrongdoer was not named in the report, and added that, “just because you leave the public service doesn’t make you exempt from those rules where wrongdoing has been found.”
“We did not feel it was necessary to name the person in order to fully describe the nature of the wrongdoing,” said Edith Lachapelle, a spokesperson for PSIC. She added that it’s the department’s responsibility to decide how to discipline the wrongdoer, not PSIC’s.
The manager worked for HRSDC for nine years, and the integrity office’s investigation examined the last six of them. A team of two investigators made site visits and interviewed more than 25 people. They also waded through invoices, travel claims and vehicle logs.
The matter was brought to the office’s attention by concerned HRSDC employee in February 2010. The employee came forward on behalf of a number of other concerned workers, with a total of 16 allegations of wrongdoing. The office started investigating in early April.
The integrity commissioner found that there was “insufficient oversight” in HRSDC’s western and territories region, allowing the manager to carry on “undetected for several years.”
“Those involved in the chain of command should be reprimanded for failing to detect or prevent this for years,” said Mr. Hutton.
One allegation involving an improper staffing process was also referred to the Public Service Commission by the integrity office.
The manager gave a close family friend a job at an office 200 kilometres away when there was already a qualified candidate living close to the job site, according to the report.
“As a result, unnecessary expenses were incurred and the manager did not respect the principle of fairness in a staffing action,” the investigation found.
The Public Service Commission also found that the manager “committed improper conduct with her involvement with the appointment process.”
The manager’s child also worked in the office and racked up overtime, mileage and accommodation claims.
Because of the improper hiring, the department has established a committee to review staffing changes.
Senior officials are also in closer contact with regional offices, and will visit more regularly, according to the report.
“We are satisfied, both with the level of co-operation and the response to our recommendations,” Mr. Dion said of Human Resources.
PSIC’s report is a first for the office, after years of finding no wrongdoing in the public service under now-disgraced former commissioner Ms. Ouimet.
Ms. Ouimet left the job in fall 2010, three years in to a seven-year term, while the auditor general was investigating her. The AG’s report later found that Ms. Ouimet had berated her staff and carried out revenge plots against those whom she thought betrayed her. She also “failed to perform her mandate,” according to the AG’s report.
An audit of work carried out under Ms. Ouimet found problems in the administration 70 of 221 cases at the office.
“We think that the investigation seems to be workman-like, and also the report is a workman-like report,” said Mr. Hutton of the current report.
But he said there are still problems with the way the integrity office performs its mandate.
“While there have certainly been many changes since Mr. Dion came to office that are positive, and which we acknowledge, but there’s still a fundamental lack of fire in the belly,” he said.
“We still believe that they treat anything really serious like a hot potato, and they can’t wait to get rid of it,” he added.
“Their purpose is to disclose and deter wrongdoing. They still don’t seem to get that. They seem to still think that as long as they have some procedures that are good, and people can come and complain, that’s all fine,” he explained.
The integrity office had 103 active files as of Feb. 29. Of those 37 are currently being investigated; 21 are allegations of wrongdoing and 16 are allegations of reprisals against whistleblowers.
“We will have a number of these reports in the not-too-distant future,” said Mr. Dion.
He added: “we will be conducting a post-mortem a couple of weeks from now to determine what worked, what could be improved, because we’re on our way to doing many more of those.”