Employees claim harassment over attempts to halt diplomatic spending
Allan Thompson, The Toronto Star: July 9, 1998
OTTAWA - Public spending on housing for Canadian diplomats is under attack in a lawsuit by two foreign affairs department employees, who say they were harassed for trying to halt lavish spending on residences abroad.John Guenette and Joanna Gualtieri, who work for the operating agency that manages the $3 billion portfolio of residences abroad, have filed a suit against the government alleging they were emotionally abused by their superiors at the department after complaining about lavish spending by diplomats.
The statement of claim filed by the pair contends that before management of the housing portfolio was turned over to a specialized agency in 1993, it was directed by senior foreign service officers and bureaucrats “with a fixation on securing for themselves, while posted abroad, grandiose and luxurious accommodations and lifestyles at the expense of the Canadian taxpayer.” “The abuses of governing policies were rampant,” they claim.
The pair contend that such abuse has cost the Canadian taxpayer “at least $2 billion” in the last 10 years. But the statement of claim doesn’t provide any details. (According to the auditor- general, the foreign affairs department spends about $200 million a year maintaining overseas housing for Canadian representatives abroad, so the entire budget for spending in the past decade would barely exceed $2 billion.)
In their lawsuit, the pair are seeking a total of $6 million in damages for themselves and punitive damages of $30 million to be used to establish an advocacy organization to represent and protect the rights of government employees.
Dexter Bishop, a spokesperson for the foreign affairs department, said yesterday that there is a limit on what he can say about the law suit because the foreign affairs department hasn’t yet filed its legal response. “We’re not making any comment on the case itself,” Bishop said. “With regard to the allegations that the department squanders money, the truth is that the department follows governmental regulations and directives on spending of money for property management and its acquisition,” Bishop said.
Bishop said the department is obliged to follow very strict guidelines, and that all major spending must be approved by Treasury Board.
“The contention, frankly, that public servants manipulate the process so as to secure for themselves lavish accommodation abroad is really quite preposterous in general terms,” Bishop said. “But I’m not commenting on the case.”
Coincidentally, the auditor- general published a detailed report last fall on the way the foreign affairs department handles its housing portfolio. John Hitchinson, the person in the auditor-general’s office responsible for reviewing the foreign affairs department, said that the study did make some criticism of the way money is spent on residences abroad. Hitchinson stressed that he is in no way commenting on the current lawsuit, but he said the most recent auditor-general’s report, and a previous study done in 1987, didn’t turn up anything that he would characterize as a boondoggle worth hundreds of millions. “I didn’t see anything here that would qualify as a boondoggle,” Hitchinson said.
In fact, the auditor-general noted that the operating agency had made “significant progress” in some areas of its property management.
One of the auditor-general’s criticisms was that the foreign affairs department doesn’t have an over-all maintenance plan for its official residences abroad. Instead, renovations and repairs are done on a case- by-case basis, after an inspection report. And in nearly half the cases reviewed by the auditor-general, repairs or renovations exceeded what was outlined in the inspection reports. “The department has spent large amounts on renovating and repairing official residences when heads of mission changed, without clearly establishing the requirements,” the auditor-general reported.
The report also criticized spending on larger residences for the purpose of official entertaining. It found the more expensive accommodation was often not used much for that.
Copyright The Toronto Star 1998