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Lawrence Martin

Like a cover-up queen in the integrity chair Add to ...

What could possibly motivate a commissioner of integrity to sweep virtually all the whistle-blowing cases that came before her under the rug?

In what could amount to one of the spicier scandals to come along in a while, this is what happened, according to Auditor-General Sheila Fraser's scorching report, in the case of Christiane Ouimet. She sat, like a cover-up queen, in the integrity chair from 2007 to 2010. During this time, 228 disclosures of wrongdoing came before her. Only seven were investigated, five of which were closed with no finding. The remaining two are in limbo.

As batting averages go, Ms. Ouimet deserves a place in Cooperstown. All those grievance bearers, all those bureaucrats who might have embarrassed the government - and yet, we're told, they were all delusional.

Many in Ms. Ouimet's office objected to her labours. But the integrity chief chastised, cursed and abused them, according to the Auditor-General, to the point where most of them fled the premises.

The Conservative government has a reputation for muzzling civil servants and lording over independent agencies and tribunals so as to crush any potential dissent. If this was their intent in appointing Ms. Ouimet, they clearly got what they wished for.

One of the reasons investigations didn't take place under her was because she unloaded most of her investigators. Normand Desjardins, who served briefly as her senior investigator, recalled: "She knocked down my investigators one by one. At the end of the day, there was one investigator for every six lawyers." Pierre Martel, Ms. Ouimet's predecessor in the integrity post, says that, back in his day, about half of his staff were investigators. When he was in the post, he recalled that about 20 per cent of the cases were found to be of merit and that some form of redress was taken. It's no surprise he was taken aback when he saw the Auditor-General's report showing the stats under Ms. Ouimet.

Before donning the integrity robes, Ms. Ouimet was associate deputy minister of agriculture. Mr. Martel said he found it strange that three of the most highly qualified people for the position were not interviewed for it. It was clear the government wanted her. It was also true that opposition parties reviewed her appointment and raised no objections. They also saw her annual reports and didn't raise any alarms when she appeared before committee.

Ms. Ouimet was part of a small fraternity of deputy ministers. According to those familiar with her work, it appears she was bound and determined to protect them as well as Stephen Harper's ministers from any potentially harmful disclosures.

For Mr. Martel, it was unsettling that one of the first people she went off to see when she began her job was Kevin Lynch, then Clerk of the Privy Council. The Integrity Commissioner's office is an independent agency, and is not answerable to the all-powerful Clerk of the Privy Council.

One of the cases Ms. Ouimet tossed aside was that of Sean Bruyea, a former air force intelligence officer who strongly advocated for new programs for veterans. Government officials sought to destroy his credibility by releasing highly sensitive material from his medical files. Ms. Ouimet refused to take up his case, saying the misconduct he was reporting didn't amount to wrongdoing under her mandate.

Ms. Ouimet had a lot of discretion to make subjective judgments. Many cases were likely of a minor, bureaucratic nature. Her senior legal counsel, Joe Friday, probably will speak in her defence before a House of Commons committee on Tuesday.

But if some of the cases she didn't take up, such as Mr. Bruyea's, are shown to be serious, the Conservatives could have a major problem on their hands. What better symbolizes ethical rot than the massive irony of having an integrity commissioner up to her eyeballs in cover-ups.

Much will depend on the media. They will choose whether to go after the story or whether to give the Tories a lovely Christmas gift by staying away.

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