While Parliament is poised to probe former disgraced public sector integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet, who ran a $6.5-million annual budget until she retired in October, did very little in response to the hundreds of disclosures of wrongdoing from whistleblowers in the last three years, and “failed to properly perform her mandate,” Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, who has produced influential and hard-hitting reports over the last two years in an effort to bring “truth to budgeting” to Parliament, has had to fight to get his $2.8-million budget and is still battling for real independence.
“When you look at the integrity commissioner’s budget is, and the work that she did or didn’t do, it’s really quite a stark contrast,” NDP MP Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) told The Hill Times. “So you have somebody who didn’t manage to do what was mandated of her, on the one hand, given a lot more resources, and yet someone who most people would argue was going above the challenge that was given to him, isn’t given enough money to do his job.”
Mr. Dewar’s private member’s bill C-572, would give the PBO the same independence the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office already has.
Auditor General Sheila Fraser recently conducted an audit on the Public Service Integrity Commissioner’s Office and found Ms. Ouimet “failed to properly perform her mandate.” In her office’s three years of existence, Ms. Ouimet and her 23 to 25 staff members found no instances wrongdoing, or reprisals for reporting wrongdoing, in the 228 cases brought before them. The office opened investigations into seven of those cases.
The office’s track record came to light after Ms. Ouimet’s sudden retirement Oct. 18, just days after she tabled her office’s third performance report.
Along with a “reluctance,” in the words of Ms. Fraser, to investigate the cases before her, the AG found that Ms. Ouimet herself engaged in many of the activities she was employed to protect public servants against. Between November 2008 and July 2009, Ms. Fraser’s office received three complaints against the integrity commissioner. She launched an investigation into the office and found that Ms. Ouimet berated and marginalized staff and looked for vengeance against those she suspected of reporting against her.
Ms. Fraser found that Ms. Ouimet did little to help federal employees who complained to her office of wrongdoing. As to the quality of her work, “in many cases, the nature of the work done or documented on file was insufficient,” according to the AG, who released her findings in the audit to Parliament on Dec. 9.
Both roles were created under the governing Conservatives’ Federal Accountability Act in 2006. While the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office is an independent agency of Parliament, the Parliamentary Budget Office falls under the administration of the Library of Parliament, and the Joint Library of Parliament Committee. In 2009-2010, the government withheld $1-million of Mr. Page’s budget in what he has called a move to punish him for being outspoken. His budget was only restored after an emergency committee meeting and after a highprofile public battle. Mr. Page is often seen as a thorn in the government’s side. Recently, Mr. Page expressed doubt that the five-year target to balance Ottawa’s budget by 2015-2016.
Allan Cutler, a former whistleblower and president of Canadians for Accountability, a volunteer organization that monitors the Integrity Commissioner’s office and advocates for whistleblowers, said Ms. Ouimet has actually turned back office budget money. “It’s a different situation [from the PBO] totally. She has no desire, but he wants to do his mandate but was hamstrung. She wasn’t hamstrung but did she want to do her mandate? They’re in opposite camps,” he said.
Mr. Page, with a budget of $2.8-million annually and a staff of 14, has turned out 19 studies this year which have challenged the government on everything from the war in Afghanistan to First Nations education to estimates on when Canada will be out of deficit.
“Our role is to discuss the issues that have come before us, not do any cost comparisons. There’s a time and a place for that and obviously we’d take that under consideration,” said Conservative Daryl Kramp (Prince Edward-Hastings, Ont.) who is vice-chair of the House Public Accounts Committee. “Our task now is we respond directly to the auditor general. That’s the role of Public Accounts and quite frankly her assessment was scathing, and it’s really disturbing, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr. Kramp added.
One of the reasons so few cases were investigated by Ms. Ouimet, according to office spokesperson Sylvie Lecompte, is that if the discloser of the wrongdoing had also initiated a claim with another body, the Integrity Commissioner’s Office cannot investigate, under the act. Other cases were referred to other bodies that could handle them better, or simply did not constitute wrongdoings or reprisals, Ms. Lecompte said.
On Dec. 16, the day the House adjourned until Jan. 31, 2011, the House Public Accounts Committee sent a letter to Ms. Ouimet requesting that she appear at their next meeting, Feb. 1, according to the office of committee chair Liberal MP Joe Volpe (Eglington-Lawrence, Ont.) Ms. Ouimet already declined an invitation to appear before the House Government Operations Committee earlier this fall, and did not respond to the auditor general’s requests to comment on a draft of the report before it was released.
If Ms. Ouimet sends her regrets to the House Public Accounts Committee, the committee’s next recourse will be to subpoena her. According to Mr. Volpe, Ms. Ouimet had proven difficult for the House Public Accounts Committee clerk to locate, which was why she did not appear to answer questions last week as hoped.
Acting commissioner Joe Friday, the office’s deputy, appeared before the committee instead on Dec. 14. “Madame Ouimet had a particular vision that she should have, or is entitled to have, as integrity commissioner, as she was determining how to carry out her mandate. She was determining what personnel that she wanted to help her support that mandate, so it was, I would say, a rather charged atmosphere on top of that. We were a very small organization trying to create itself while having to take on files.… That made for an environment where there were certainly discussions, sometimes tensions, debate, discussion about vision, about focus, about performance of individuals,” Mr. Friday said at the committee.
Mr. Friday told MPs that he had not witnessed what he thought to be abusive behaviour by Ms. Ouimet. Mr. Friday also assured MPs that the office was now trying to “ensure that we’re as healthy as possible” by inviting any current or former employees who previously felt they could not come forward with problems to do so now. “The situation has changed obviously with the departure of the former commissioner [and complaints] can be brought forward,” said Mr. Friday told MPs. Mr. Friday also told the committee that the office has an internal conflict manager to help deal with the aftermath of Ms. Ouimet’s tenure.
Mr. Cutler said that Mr. Friday’s assurances were “smoke and mirrors.” He said that someone from within the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office had approached him as late as October with a complaint against the commissioner. “[The whistleblower] said ‘What do you do when your integrity commissioner has no integrity? and ‘How do you blow the whistle on the whistleblowing organization?’ said Mr. Cutler. “Until [Ms. Ouimet] resigned, and even then, as far as I know, the office has problems in it, a lot of problems in it,” Mr. Cutler said. Mr. Cutler did not have a high opinion of the acting head’s credibility at committee last week.
Meanwhile, Treasury Board President Stockwell Day (Okanagan- Coquihalla, B.C.) appointed Mario Dion as the interim public sector integrity commissioner. Mr. Dion spent almost 30 years in the public service, most recently as chair of the National Parole Board, before joining a strategic government consulting firm last year. As interim commissioner, Mr. Dion’s appointment lasts up to six months and did not have to be vetted by the committee or approved by Parliament. According to the government and the Integrity Commissioner’s Office, Mr. Dion will be in charge of determining how to re-examine the 228 cases to see if they were handled appropriately.
In the meantime, the search for a long-term integrity commissioner will “start shortly” according to Treasury Board spokesperson Pierre-Alain Boujold. According to the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office, the salary range for a commissioner is $165,00 and $194,000. The choice of interim commissioner has not impressed integrity advocates and MPs who say they feel like they are experiencing déja-vu.
“I testified in Parliament the first time around when they were setting this up, that nobody who was from senior bureaucracy in the public service should be appointed, and they appointed her,” said Mr. Cutler, adding that the appointment of Mr. Dion “isn’t going to solve anything.”
Conservative MP Daryl Kramp (Prince Edward-Hastings, Ont.), vice-chair of the House Public Accounts Committee, said public service experience is not necessarily a bad thing when looking for an integrity commissioner. “To my mind, it doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they’re capable of doing their job. There are arguments both ways. The argument the other way is that if we wish to have someone familiar with the actual operations of departmental processes that might give them an advantage of assessing the situation,” Mr. Kramp told The Hill Times.
The Public Servant’s Disclosure Protection Act gives the Public Sector Integrity Office a lot of leeway in determining how to process cases, said Mr. Cutler. “The answer on any legislation is there is three parts to every legislation: what you can do, what you can’t do, and what it doesn’t say you can do or not do. And that middle ground is usually pretty big. What we had from my understanding is a commissioner who looked at what we can’t do and said, ‘Well, we can’t do anything then,’ instead of saying ‘What can we do?’” Mr. Cutler said.