A whistle blown, a decade lost

Rating: 
2

Donna Jacobs, Ottawa Citizen Special
Published: Monday, May 22, 2006

Joanna Gualtieri, a young lawyer working for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, says she was forbidden to use the word "lavish" to describe a Canadian diplomat's residence abroad.

"My boss crossed out the word 'lavish' and told me not to use terms like that ever again," she told Ottawa lawyer and journalist Lynne Cohen in 2003 in Canadian Lawyer.

Ultimately, Ms. Gualtieri used the word.

She sued the federal government and her eight bosses -- Geoff Cliffe-Phillips, Frank Townson, Ken Pearson, Ian Dawson, James Judd, Lucie Edwards, Gordon Smith and Donald Campbell -- from immediate supervisor to the latter two deputy ministers.

She sued them as individuals for $5 million in general damages and $1 million in punitive damages -- to hold them, rather than taxpayers, personally accountable. She sued them for ignoring or repressing her reports, changing her duties, isolating her and ultimately driving her, harassed and in poor health, from her job.

Her suit contends that the diplomatic service kept "lavish official residences" in Copenhagen, Oslo, Brasilia, Brussels and Dublin, despite a departmental directive to sell them and to return "millions of dollars into public coffers and prudently acquire residences that complied with Treasury Board Regulations."

Ms. Gualtieri says she was "expressly forbidden" by two bosses from working up a proposal to sell extremely valuable residences in Tokyo, Mexico City and Brasilia.

She started work as a real estate strategist 14 years ago. Her job was to evaluate waste and make efficient use of Canada's billion-dollar investments in real estate and rental properties around the world -- all of it taxpayers' money.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Gualtieri went before a Commons committee on Bill C-2 (the Federal Accountability Act) and described her reluctant journey from public servant to whistleblower.

"I spent years working within the system," she said.

"That was simply, I felt, what one does. In fact, I didn't realize how much they wanted to get rid of me. So I spent years trying to do my job. This is the reality for so many whistleblowers. They are merely doing their jobs."

In 1996, she said, "I went to see Jim Judd who was the ADM (assistant deputy minister). In 1997, I wrote to (then-foreign affairs minister) Lloyd Axworthy."

Mr. Judd, who is now director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, never answered her concerns, she testified, and Mr. Axworthy warned her through his departmental lawyers that they might sue her for libel because of her allegations.

"Nobody," she said, "dealt with the substance of the complaints, neither the wrongdoing nor the retaliation."

In their statement of defence, the eight managers have denied her claims. They call her allegations "speculative, subjective and mischievous and irrational and without basis either in logic or objective fact." They say that she "at no time" told her supervisors of any instance of mismanagement of public funds.

Ms. Gualtieri's suit details examples of "millions of dollars" in under-used or vacant land and buildings in Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and South America.

"A large mansion in Tokyo valued at approximately $18 million was left to sit vacant for approximately three or four years while the intended occupant, Joseph Caron, was provided with public monies to rent a luxury apartment (at about $350,000 annually) of his own choosing.

"Million-dollar, Crown-owned condominiums in Tokyo were used to house the ambassador's Japanese butler and chef in clear violation of stated rules and despite the fact the official residence was approximately 25,000 square feet with dedicated servant quarters."

She says now that she wishes she'd known early on that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade's overspending had been criticized by auditors general dating back 25 years. A 1997 report notes cost overruns of $38 million on three projects alone; a 1998 report notes that more than half the diplomatic hospitality properties exceed normal size.

Gerard Seijts, associate professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario's MBA program, has drawn up Harvard-style curriculum case notes on Ms. Gualtieri's lawsuit. He wants a strong whistleblower protection law.

"I'm seriously wondering whether the legislation on the table will protect a person like Joanna," he says. "She has done all the right things and has been nine years in court."

Ms. Gualtieri says a good law must provide:

1. Free speech: All employees, government or its agencies or business, must have the right to blow the whistle on any wrongdoing, anywhere, anytime and to any audience -- including the media. If there is an issue, such as national security, involved, a whistleblower should be able to tell Parliament and law enforcement agencies.

2. Independent review: An investigative body, such as an all-party committee, must be free to review government's treatment of a whistleblower and to order corrective action -- holding to parliamentary account any minister who refused to fix the problem.

3. The right to seek remedy in the courts: Employees must be able to claim compensation for lost wages, for lost future earnings, for pain and suffering, and for all discriminatory acts of reprisal.

They must not be "shuffled off," as now, to a tribunal that can become a "kangaroo court, captive of the government of the day." They should have full due process and realistic burdens of proof with which to vindicate themselves.

4. Wrongdoer's accountability: Culprits must be charged with offences, and appropriately fined, removed from office, jailed if found guilty of wrongdoing -- including destructive retaliation against whistleblowers.

In 1998, she started FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform). Its website, www.fairwhistleblower.ca, co-ordinated by volunteer and former electrical engineer Dave Hutton, includes details of 16 other famous Canadian whistleblowers' cases

She says her long battle to reveal great waste at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in an open court has been costly.

"This is why I caution you -- the government is very powerful," she told the Commons committee. "In one motion alone they asked me for $380,000 in costs. (The court assessed her $80,000.) So it's a dangerous undertaking for whistleblowers."

Karen Ann Reid, an Ottawa criminal lawyer and a friend of Ms. Gualtieri's, describes watching a different attempt by the government to swamp a citizen with legal costs.

On St. Valentine's Day 2002, she says Department of Justice senior counsel Linda Wall asked Ontario's Court of Appeal to order Ms. Gualtieri to pay her own costs and the government's -- even if she won. Losers typically pay winners' costs.

Ms. Reid says that Justice John Laskin appeared "bemused, if not stunned" and responded that even if he had entertained the motion, he lacked jurisdiction to make such an order.

"I found it unsettling," Ms. Reid says, "to watch the weighty fist of government readying itself to crush the citizen who had presumed to challenge its fiat. I have been a lawyer for over two decades and I can tell you that I've never heard this kind of 'heads I win, tails I win' logic put to any tribunal as I did that day."

Ms. Wall told the Citizen: "I would be surprised if I said we should get costs in any event." She says that neither her documents nor her memory support such a claim, but suggested checking with Andrew Raven, Ms. Gualtieri's "very able counsel" at the time.

Ms. Reid told the Citizen that Mr. Raven confirmed Ms. Wall's winner-pay-all request.

Ms. Gualtieri says she's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills in her all-consuming search for justice. She has also lost years of the life she might have lived.

"My whole 30s and half of my 40s are gone," says the 45-year-old mother of sons, a two-year-old and a 10-month-old.

"And they were the years in which we were going to be building our lives together."

She and her husband, Serge Landry, once a St. Albert, Que., dairy farmer, used to renovate homes together. He continues that work and manages their rental properties.

After her parliamentary testimony, Stephen Owen, Liberal MP for Vancouver Quadra, told her: "I think many of us, if not all of us, in this room understand that the horrific experience you went through has added force to the demand for whistleblower legislation in this country."

He says the legislative reforms now under way are a testament to her "courage, determination, and resilience" in the process.

 

Donna Jacobs is an Ottawa writer; her e-mail address is donnabjacobs@hotmail.com

Copyright Ottawa Citizen 2006