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Whistleblower watchdog attacked her own staff, Auditor-General finds

Normand Desjardins, former Chief, Operations (Investigations) for Public Sector, Integrity Canada, poses inside his home in Saint-Colomban, Quebec, December 9, 2010.

Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

Christiane Ouimet was supposed to shield federal whistleblowers from reprisals and expose government employers who were operating outside the lines.

But Auditor-General Sheila Fraser says Ms. Ouimet, Canada's first public-sector integrity commissioner, instead engaged in the very activities she was hired to prevent, berating and marginalizing her staff while seeking vengeance against those she suspected of reporting her misdeeds.

Beyond that, Ms. Fraser said in a scathing report released Thursday, Ms. Ouimet did little if anything to help the federal employees who came to her office with complaints of wrongdoing.

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"Files were closed without any review or serious inquiry. There wasn't enough documentation and also the nature of the work that was done wasn't appropriate," Ms. Fraser told a news conference.

"I find this obviously very troubling and, I think, very disappointing."

During her time in office, Ms. Ouimet received 228 disclosures of wrongdoing or reprisals from public servants. Seven were investigated. Five were closed with no finding of wrongdoing and two remained under investigation at the time of Ms. Fraser's audit.

In the meantime, the staff at the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner's office say the commissioner "yelled, swore, and also berated, marginalized and intimidated certain PSIC employees, and that she engaged in reprisal actions." The office had a turnover rate of about 50 per cent every year between August, 2007, and July, 2009.

In one case, Ms. Ouimet incorrectly suspected a former senior executive of having complained to Ms. Fraser about her behaviour. In response, the former commissioner disclosed private information about the man to his previous employer, senior government officials and a private-sector security consultant. She also tasked six of her staff with the job of preparing four binders of information about him.

"I think we have all heard of bad bosses," Ms. Fraser said. "But I am, as you are, troubled by the fact that there was this investigation ... that there were binders of material being assembled by personnel in that office on someone who had left that office six months previously."

Normand Desjardins, the former chief of operations and director of investigations, was not the subject of that particular retaliatory action on the part of Ms. Ouimet. But he did lodge the first complaint against the commissioner after taking early retirement, at the age of 56, as a result of the way his boss behaved toward him.

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"I had no other avenue than quitting the office because the way she was treating me I couldn't take it any more," Mr. Desjardins said Thursday. "I had to see my doctor and my only solution was to leave the government because, at my level, to find another job was impossible."

Mr. Desjardins said he was extremely impressed with Ms. Fraser's report and hopes he will now get the bonus pay that he said Ms. Ouimet denied him as a means of punishment.

According to Ms. Fraser's report, Ms. Ouimet responded to the audit by saying the complaints were exaggerated and that the employees in question were angry at being denied promotions promised by previous managers. She also suggested that many of the employees who had made allegations were incompetent or not productive. Ms. Ouimet retired in October.

But Ms. Fraser said she found the employees' complaints to be well founded.

As to the many complaints from public servants that were closed without adequate investigation, Ms. Fraser said: "I think it is necessary for the commission to review the files and to provide assurance to Parliament, to Canadians and especially to those people who brought forward allegations that they have been dealt with seriously and in a credible manner."

A successor to Ms. Ouimet has yet to be named. But the office issued a statement on Thursday saying it is moving forward and is conducting significantly more investigations, some of which involve multiple allegations of wrongdoing.

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David Hutton, the executive director of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, which helps federal public employees to speak out without fear of reprisal, said Ms. Fraser's findings were horrifying.

"What this commissioner has done," said Mr. Hutton, "is she has provided a role model for the very types of behaviour that she was supposed to help to drive out of the public service: wrongdoing in the performance of her job and reprisals against staff that she suspected were trying to expose her or complain about her."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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