Thursday, December 09, 2010

Harper's Integrity Commissioner: "inappropriate and unacceptable for a public servant"

The Auditor General has now weighed in with her report on the Harper appointed integrity commissioner: "Integrity commissioner's actions 'unacceptable': Fraser." Christiane Ouimet, now retired, was Harper's pick, "charged with the responsibility of upholding integrity in the public sector and of protecting public servants from reprisal."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper nominated Ouimet as commissioner on June 12, 2007, saying her "unique combination of skills and experience [would] serve her well as she leads the implementation of the new regime for the protection of whistleblowers."
It didn't turn out that way, given the AG's findings, and one must question whether this was the intent of Mr. Harper all along, to undermine the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner position and let public sector whistleblowers twist in the wind. Read and assess for yourself. Here is some of the material with respect to "the failure by the Commissioner to properly perform her mandated functions." First some stats and then just one case example which has now been re-opened.
There are concerns about a reluctance to investigate

26. According to its 2007–08 and 2008–09 annual reports, PSIC received a total of 114 disclosures of wrongdoing and 42 complaints of reprisal in the first two years of its operation. During this period, out of the 156 files, three formal investigations were conducted. No disclosures of wrongdoing were determined to be founded and no reprisal complaints were referred to the Tribunal. Following the period covered by our audit, PSIC released its annual report for 2009–10. For its third year in operation, PSIC reported having received an additional 56 disclosures of wrongdoing and 16 complaints of reprisal. Out of these 72 additional files, two disclosures of wrongdoing were reported as having been closed after formal investigation, neither of which resulted in a finding of wrongdoing. Two reprisal files were reported as being under formal investigation.

27. Many current and former PSIC employees we met with as part of our audit expressed concerns that the Commissioner was reluctant to investigate disclosures of wrongdoing and to refer complaints of reprisal to the Tribunal. Additionally, some of these current and former employees raised concerns about the Commissioner’s objectivity and impartiality in her decisions and her involvement in operational files. Most of the individuals who expressed these concerns were members of PSIC’s investigative or legal teams and were directly involved in the operational files.
Those stats seem pretty stunning. Combined with the concerns from those most intricately involved in the investigative area and the questions should mount.

Here is just one case cited by the AG's audit where there was a refusal to act, wrongly, on a question of improper procurement contract meddling:
30. In one case of disclosure of wrongdoing, the complainant alleged that he was directed by his manager to accept a late bid on a procurement contract contrary to the Treasury Board Contracting Policy and applicable law. The manager who allegedly issued the direction also allegedly had an interest in the organization that submitted the late bid. Although PSIC recognized that the alleged actions by the manager would constitute a wrongdoing, it refused to investigate the disclosure because the contract was never awarded, and because PSIC was satisfied that the situation had been properly dealt with by the Senior Officer of the government organization. We did not find any evidence on file to demonstrate that the government organization had addressed the alleged conflict of interest and direction by the manager to accept the late bid. The complainant also filed a complaint of reprisal in relation to this disclosure based on other events that took place. PSIC refused to investigate the reprisal complaint on the basis that management’s actions were within its privilege in the course of managing an office. Again, we did not find any evidence on file in support of this conclusion. We asked the Commissioner for her position regarding PSIC’s conclusions on this file. The Commissioner told us that she was satisfied by the recommendations of her staff. PSIC subsequently informed us that it recently conducted a review of a number of its files, and that the case described in this paragraph has been re-opened.
That's a fairly stunning one. In light of the present goings on with the Parliament Hill contracting investigation, that one resonates.

The message that may have been sent throughout the public service? That complaint is futile, wrongdoing will not be addressed.

The message to the public out of all this? This was the AG's judgment on Mr. Harper's pick:
In our view, the Commissioner’s behaviour and actions do not pass the test of public scrutiny and are inappropriate and unacceptable for a public servant—most notably for the Agent of Parliament specifically charged with the responsibility of upholding integrity in the public sector and of protecting public servants from reprisal.
Mr. Harper's judgment was wrong. I'm sure we'll hear lots today from Mr. Baird et al. about how this reform was brought in by this government, etc. The proof is in the work, however, and who you choose to implement the reform. This is a damning report on the success of this office, to say the least.

The Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner has put out a statement saying what it is doing, in the wake of all this and probably to provide assurance that it is operating cognizant of these findings.