Donna Jacobs, Ottawa Citizen Special
Published: Monday, May 15, 2006
Fourteen years ago, a young lawyer working for the federal government fatefully filed critical reports on Canadian diplomats' residences and offices abroad. The reports described, in disturbing detail, how some high-living foreign service diplomats were squandering millions of Canadian tax dollars.
Joanna Gualtieri's efforts to fix what she considered a corrupt system were, she says, thwarted by her bosses for two years. To get her story out, she says, she ultimately turned into a whistleblower who has sued her former bosses in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).
"Our justice system is being manipulated by the Department of Justice so I can never do what I want to do, which is to walk into open court," Ms. gualtieri says. "I've been wanting to do this for nine years -- and just tell my story and let the people of Canada decide.
"It's the people's money after all. Let the people of Canada decide whether million-dollar residences should sit vacant because the diplomats don't like them." She says waste by DFAIT continues.
Ms. Gualtieri's mornings now often begin at 1:30 a.m. "I have difficulty sleeping," she says. Instead, she gets up and begins searching files that contain some 55,000 sheets of paper to answer still more questions from her antagonist, the Justice Department.
"The house would be chaotic," she says. "The day before I would have gone through thousands of documents trying to find one. Now there's chaos all around me, and I have to put that back together and start again.
"That's my life."
In the discovery process, on and off for weeks, she says, "I come home and try to get a bite to eat and then I'll spend hours trying to prepare for the next day."
The Justice Department is acting on behalf of the eight people -- Frank Townson, Ian Dawson, Ken Pearson, James Judd, Gordon Smith, Geoff Cliffe-Phillips, Donald W. Campbell and Lucie Edwards -- she says either stopped her from doing her job, changed her reports and her workload or ignored her requests to stop the waste, which ultimately drove her, shunned and exhausted, from her job.
She sued them as individuals -- not government employees -- "so they will be held individually accountable for damages" instead of the "average, ordinary, decent taxpayer."
Ms. Gualtieri's legal statement of claim says that government rules and regulations were "routinely flouted" by her bosses, that a longstanding culture of entitlement and careerism pervaded the department, that employees secured for themselves luxurious accommodations while posted abroad.
She is suing them for $5 million in general damages for loss of income, for loss of career, health and pension and for denial of fundamental freedoms of "thought, belief, opinion and expression." And she is suing for an additional $1 million in punitive damages.
The Justice Department filed a 27-page detailed defence that denies her allegations and holds her to strict proof.
Her two young children, Zacharie, two, and Sebastien, 10 months, are often up at 5 a.m. with their dad, Serge Landry, 51. They all try to have breakfast together; Ms. Gualtieri's brother, Mark, helps out with the boys.
The loss of family "good times," she says, is the most difficult thing. But this is inevitable "when you're one person managing what you should have an army of lawyers and legal secretaries to do," while the Justice Department draws on taxpayers' dollars for its lawyers and clerical help.
The couple's conversation, their schedules, their social life are captive to the lawsuit. They have seen two movies in 10 years. They never go out to dinner together. She no longer bicycles or goes to the gym. She has missed family birthday and holiday celebrations.
And, often speaking wistfully, sometimes tearfully, she describes going to bed and dreaming that the long struggle is over and won, only to awaken to the next day's legal treadmill.
"My husband used to say to me, 'Jo, I'm just a simple guy. I'm a farmer. You rise at 4 a.m. and you feed the cows and you do your farm chores and you work hard and you have to sleep at night because that's what replenishes the body. And the soul.'
"He used to say to me: 'Joanna, you're going to die, because you don't sleep'." If it hasn't killed her, it has hurt her health and her stamina. But, she says, she's backed into a corner, where at stake are principle, personal credibility, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills, lost income and thousands of lost hours.
One January document alone, from Justice Department Senior General Counsel Brian Saunders, called a Request to Admit, asks her to admit the truth of 160 separate statements.
"That Official Residences (OR) provide a home for the head of mission and his/her family.
"That the master bedroom must have ample storage, suitable for storage of long evening gowns and other formal attire used at official functions."
Says Mr. Landry: "I'm sick of it and I'm probably one of the reasons she's in it, because I thought there was justice in this country. I don't any more. Now I want it to be over.
"Justice (Department) has unlimited funds. They don't care if it drags for 25 years because those guys work 9 to 5. It's an abusive court process. It's a lose-lose situation.
"If you roll over and die, well, you disappear. And if you get up and fight back, they say, 'Hey, look at her. What's wrong with this person? (She says) she's been damaged. She's talking to the media, to the university -- there's no problem with her'."
Because her case is before the courts, she was reluctant to talk about her lawsuit specifics.
Mr. Landry, however, is outspoken: He tells how Ms. Gualtieri, a 45-year-old mother of a newborn, was accused of deliberately delaying discoveries because she was breastfeeding, and another time, because she had the flu.
Ms. Gualtieri was an overachiever who graduated from Carleton University at age 19, was a cum laude University of Ottawa law school graduate (on Law Review, the school's journal, for two years) and who had a passion for real estate. She articled, met Mr. Landry and they renovated some homes together.
In 1992, she got an ideal job in the Bureau of Physical Resources as a real-estate strategist that combined real estate and law with her love of travelling -- a job she loved until she reported profligate use of taxpayer money.
To correct such serious, unaddressed abuses of power, she says, public servants should be allowed to sue the government.
Crucially, ironically, she says her fight for this basic freedom was publicly won, then surreptitiously lost.
In September 2000, Ontario Superior Court Justice James Chadwick (now retired) ruled that she -- and all public servants -- have no right to sue the federal government for wrong-doing. They were, instead, to use the grievance procedure.
"When he ruled against me," says Ms. Gualtieri, "it was devastating. Nobody expected it. He was senior judge in Ottawa. Most Canadians would have a hard time understanding this (decision.)"
Ms. Gualtieri appealed. A three-judge panel in Ontario's Court of Appeal led by Justice John Laskin unanimously overturned Judge Chadwick's verdict. Says Ms. Gualtieri: "The government was arguing that your only remedy was to complain to your boss -- like telling the accused to sit in judgment of the accused.
"The Department of Justice should have had the courage to appeal it to the Supreme Court of Canada," she says. "Instead, very quietly, a year later, in 2003, the Liberal government changed the law. They buried one of the most important things -- the right to challenge the abuse of power -- in this huge act (section 236 of the Public Service Modernization Act)."
The government closed the courts to Canada's more than 300,000 public servants.
Unless the Conservative government changes the law with its Accountability Act, unless the present law is struck down as unconstitutional, Ms. Gualtieri could be the last public servant to sue the federal government.
"Many people want to do their jobs well and to tell the truth," she says.
"It is just so simple. If there is respect for the truth," she says quietly, "let your people speak."
Next week: Ms. Gualtieri's case and the Accountability Act
Donna Jacobs is an Ottawa writer; her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright Ottawa Citizen 2006