There's Bev Oda. Then there is someone who makes Ms. Oda's actions, judging from a recent Auditor-General's report, look rather angelic. The elusive former integrity commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, was finally located last week - in Florida. And now that she has been located, the Conservative government may face one of its stiffest tests of damage control.
Ms. Ouimet (rhymes with Antoinette) is the public servant who, according to Sheila Fraser's damning report, did not do her job properly - choosing to investigate just seven of 228 complaints about wrongdoing in the public sector - possibly saving the Harper government multiple embarrassments. After failing to appear before a parliamentary committee despite being subpoenaed, she sent a rather terse message to the committee through her lawyer saying she was willing to return March 10 to face interrogators. What a show it promises to be. Given the large number of uninvestigated cases that came before her, the possibility of smoking guns suddenly appearing on the government's doorstep can hardly be discarded.
Opposition members will be out to determine whether Ms. Ouimet was acting at the behest of her political or top bureaucratic superiors. The Public Accounts Committee has passed a motion requiring the delivery of all correspondence between her office and other government departments.
Committee member Jean-Claude D'Amours, a Liberal, said in an interview there is no doubt some of the cases that came to her involved serious matters. "We have received information on some of them. They were about alleged fraud and the mismanagement of assets."
It is also clear, said Mr. D'Amours, that there was correspondence between her office and the Privy Council Office. Given that Ms. Ouimet was supposed to be operating an independent agency, he wonders why. "And now the PCO is saying they don't have time to get us all the documentation."
But the important thing, noted NDP committee member David Christopherson, is that there will be a paper trail. Conservatives, he said, are clearly worried. "This fuels the whole idea that this is a government that can't be trusted and the people they choose to put in these important positions can't be trusted."
If the opposition is right, this could amount to the most serious scandal this government has faced.
Committee chairman Joe Volpe said some of the whistleblowers turned aside by Ms. Ouimet have privately contacted some committee members. Some of the cases, he explained, involve complex legal questions and questions of jurisdiction. The thicket, he said, will be difficult to work through.
That raises the possibility that the government might be able to succeed in bogging the committee down in bureaucratic proceedings until an election is called. Another highly embarrassing file for the government, the Afghan detainees affair, has been out of the news for nine months due to procedural tie-ups.
Ms. Ouimet will likely argue, with the assistance of a crack legal team, that many of the serious cases that came before her were not within her jurisdiction to investigate.
Pierre Martel, who served in the integrity post (although it went under a different name) before Ms. Ouimet, says that he was troubled by one of the first things Ms. Ouimet did when taking over the job in 2007. Because of the office's independence, he cautioned her against going to see the Clerk of the Privy Council. But he said she did so anyway.
There is no doubt that the hurdle the government faces with respect to her case is a formidable one. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said once that when a government starts to cancel dissent, it loses its moral authority to govern. Given the Conservatives' reputation for secrecy and fierce partisanship and indeed the stifling of dissent, they will not be the recipients of much benefit of the doubt on her file.
Ms. Ouimet's title bears repeating. She was this country's integrity commissioner.Report Typo/Error
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