The watchdog created to independently investigate allegations of wrongdoing within government appears to have a cozy relationship with top bureaucrats and cabinet ministers.
Letters and emails obtained by The Canadian Press show former public sector integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet sought a meeting with Treasury Board President Stockwell Day and did meet with his predecessor, Vic Toews.
She also met with top bureaucrat Wayne Wouters, against the advice of her predecessor, who warned she needed to maintain a healthy distance from the apparatus of government.
And she exchanged emails with officials in the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister's Office, about some allegations of wrongdoing.
Ms. Ouimet resigned abruptly late last year, just before the auditor general issued a scathing report slamming the commissioner's routine dismissal of allegations of wrongdoing and her bullying behaviour toward staff.
But the cozy relationship appears to have continued since Ms. Ouimet's departure.
Her interim replacement, Mario Dion, sent an email last month to a PCO official, aimed at giving Mr. Wouters a heads up about a matter that might come up during a House of Commons committee inquiry into Ms. Ouimet's conduct.
He notes in the Feb. 2 email that Mr. Wouters, clerk of the Privy Council, may be asked to testify at the public accounts committee and goes on: "There is one issue that your office is currently not privy to and that the clerk must be briefed on.
"A former senior official at the office has retained legal counsel in order to pursue a claim for constructive dismissal. I will be pleased to provide details to a PCO officer to ensure Wayne is not blind-sided."
Copies of the letters and emails have been tabled with the committee. They have not yet been released publicly but some were obtained Tuesday by The Canadian Press.
Liberal MP Joe Volpe, chair of the public accounts committee, alluded to the documents Monday in the House of Commons. He charged that communications between the watchdog and PCO demonstrate that Prime Minister Stephen Harper "never intended to have an independent commissioner's office" when he created the office three years ago.
"So much for whistleblower protection. ... Is not that office nothing but a sham?"
Mr. Day countered that the Harper government is the one that created an independent office to investigate wrongdoing and protect whistleblowers, after 13 years of Liberal footdragging on the matter. He did not defend Ms. Ouimet but said Mr. Dion is "aggressively pursuing files."
"That is what we are pleased to see."
In a June 2009 letter to Mr. Toews, Ms. Ouimet tells the minister she was "delighted" to have met with him earlier. She writes about the "very strong support" her office has received for its "approach in dealing with cases" and adds: "In that respect, your role and leadership continue to be instrumental."
Auditor General Sheila Fraser's report found that Ms. Ouimet's office received 228 allegations of wrongdoing or reprisals for whistleblowing, investigated only seven and issued not one finding of wrongdoing.
The email trail suggests at least two complainants turned to PCO after getting nowhere with Ms. Ouimet's office.
In one email, PCO requested a status report on a complainant who had alleged misuse of government funds but was told by Ms. Ouimet's office it "did not have the resources to investigate" his charge. Ms. Ouimet replied that there had been a "misunderstanding" and her office was following up.
In another, PCO informed Ms. Ouimet that it had been contacted by a public servant who had tried to file a complaint with the integrity commissioner's office but had "not heard back from anyone in three weeks."
Ms. Ouimet's predecessor, Pierre Martel said Ms. Ouimet's first priority upon taking the job was to meet with the clerk of the Privy Council - even though he advised her against becoming too chummy with top bureaucrats or ministers.
"In my view, I advised her that this was not probably the best (idea)," said Mr. Martel, who was executive director of the public service integrity office that existed before the Harper government turned it into an independent watchdog reporting to Parliament.
Mr. Martel would not comment directly on the letters and emails obtained by The Canadian Press. But in general, he said, the commissioner "has to be seen to be and has to be perceived as really fair and neutral, totally independent from the executive."
The commissioner should not be "seen as part of the government apparatus in briefing or alerting executives what to say or not to say or even sharing information or seeking guidance about how to go about discharging his or her mandate."
Mr. Martel said it's "a bit dangerous" for the commissioner to be seeking even introductory meetings with cabinet ministers since that "raises a red flag" about the independence of the office.
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