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Former integrity commissioner swept aside disclosures of wrongdoing

Canada's former integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet routinely swept aside serious disclosures of alleged wrongdoing by claiming that she lacked the jurisdiction to pursue them, according to a registry of the cases obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The caseload brought before Ms. Ouimet, who took early retirement last year before the Auditor-General concluded she was not properly performing her functions, suggest that some of the cases, if pursued, may have brought embarrassment to the government.

The log shows that 42 of the cases involved alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars or government assets. Another 50 or so cases involved charges of what is listed as "gross mismanagement." About 60 other allegations involved contraventions of Acts of Parliament.

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In the integrity chair from 2007 to 2010, Ms. Ouimet and her officials examined 228 disclosures of alleged wrongdoing but upheld none of the complaints. In December she was mandated to appear before a parliamentary committee to explain her actions. She could not be found. She recently forwarded word that she was out of the country. She now says she will appear before the public accounts committee on March 10.

Opposition members on the committee suspect, and are out to prove, that her office, an independent agency not answerable to the Prime Minister's Office or the Privy Council Office, was pressured from above to cover up wrongdoing.

The docket obtained by The Globe provides a capsule summary of each case without going into specifics. A separate column is marked "Reasons for Decision" on them. In a great many cases, the reason stated is "Has been or could be more appropriately dealt with under another Act of Parliament."

Another rationale provided is that the case in question would require obtaining information from outside the public sector. Another is that "Subject matter of the disclosure did not meet the definition of wrongdoing."

Some of the other cases of complaint listed in the docket include: directing a person to commit wrongdoing; serious breach of code of conduct; substantial and specific danger to life, health, safety of persons or to the environment.; termination of employment; directing a person to commit wrongdoing.

In her report tabled in December, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, whose office interviewed many officials in the Integrity office, said that in many cases decisions to dismiss disclosures of wrongdoing "were not supported by either the nature of the work performed, the documentation on file, or both."

The 228 cases brought before Ms. Ouimet included 58 claims of reprisals against public servants who sought to speak out. These are all rejected by her office, the reason in some of them stated as: "No jurisdiction. Measures complained of did not meet the definition of reprisal, including insufficent or no evidence of a link with a protected disclosure."

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Ms. Fraser's report came down hard against Ms. Ouimet's treatment of complainants who alleged reprisals. Her report found also that Ms. Ouimet berated and bullied and swore at staff.

Members of the Public Accounts Committee said in interviews that some of the cases appear to involve serious matters of fraud. Some individual complainants have come before committee members to discuss their cases privately, revealing details not yet made public.

The committee has asked for all correspondence between Ms. Ouimet's office and other government departments. That correspondence has begun to arrive and some of it, committee members said, includes correspondence with the PCO.

Committee members suspect Ms. Ouimet will use every legal loophole imaginable in her job description to defend her actions. Experts say the act governing her office does in fact leave itself open to varying interpretations and some leeway for the commissioner to claim cases are beyond her jurisdiction.

When she came into the post, Ms. Ouimet eliminated some of the investigators in her office and replaced them with lawyers.

Liberal committee member Navdeep Bains said Wednesday that given the government's reputation for secrecy, it is well possible that she was being pressured from above to dismiss sensitive cases.

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Pierre Martel, who served in the integrity post (it was under a different name then) prior to Ms. Ouimet said he advised her, given the independence of the office, against communicating with the Privy Council Office. But he said one of the first things she did was to go and confer with the Clerk of the PCO.

An interim commissioner of integrity is now in place and is reviewing some of the old cases. In his experience, Mr. Martel said that about 20 per cent of cases that came before him justified investigations on the part of his office. Under Ms. Ouimet, seven of the 228 cases were followed up by investigations. Five were closed with no finding and two remained in limbo.

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Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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