We agreed that they would be there for just a minute or two.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(g) and a motion adopted by the committee on Thursday, December 9, 2010 regarding the report of the Auditor General of Canada on the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada, we have appearing before us today Ms. Christiane Ouimet.
She is the former commissioner, Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada.
By agreement of the committee, she is accompanied at the table by her counsel, Mr. Whitehall, but Mr. Whitehall is not a witness and is not going to be answering any questions. Madame Ouimet may consult with him as she feels the need to do so, but he is not answering any questions.
Secondly, I remind all colleagues around the table that the witnesses enjoy the same immunities that we would enjoy in Parliament. I think both Madame Ouimet and Mr. Whitehall understand what that means. There are no legal consequences to what Madame Ouimet may say.
Madame Ouimet, since the Auditor General delivered a rather harsh report in respect of the Public Sector Integrity Commission last December, Canadians have been waiting for about three and a half months to hear your side of the story. Please start.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
First of all, Parliament appears to have accepted outright, without any dispute, the Auditor General's report. The simple act of my being here today to express my serious reservations may perhaps be viewed as being inappropriate, but the purpose of my statement today is specifically to point out the significant flaws and mistaken observations that undermined my reputation personally and that of my office.
I am pleased to be here to discuss a report that, essentially, deals with labour relations and four of my decisions. I will focus specifically on the four decisions mentioned in the report. I would also like to talk to you about the rigorous approach, control measures and very detailed procedures that were implemented under my leadership.
To the members of the committee, I would explain that I have spent eight years serving Canadian public institutions. I myself have made decisions as part of an administrative tribunal, I have managed commercial fraud programs throughout Canada and I have led audit teams to improve organizations. When I was with the Immigration and Refugee Board, I developed the chair's plan to eliminate a backlog of 55,000 files. I received the honorary title of chief of aboriginal police in acknowledgement of my leadership. As the Associate Deputy Minister for Public Works, I reorganized a department of 14,000 employees at a time when the sponsorship file was an issue. I went back to my roots, at Agriculture Canada, to help needy farmers.
In 2007, with the support of the two Houses, I accepted the position of integrity commissioner. Today I am very proud to say that I have left behind a professional institution that has expertise in administrative investigations that is unique in Canada and has a staff of very high calibre individuals. When I left my position, 15 serious investigations were under way.
I must say, unequivocally, that I have serious problems with the report, which must be read bearing in mind the terms of reference that I will explain to you.
We took the legislation the way Parliament has given it to us. We took a very complex piece of legislation, and I had to institute an organization able to deliver the very complex mandate and have the procedures and the level of controls in place. I have produced a document at l'Université Laval that gives the genesis of the office, the complexity, the challenges.
Essentially, the act prohibited us from intervening if there was another process ongoing. We weren't there as a replacement of another organization or to implement court decisions. We were also limited in our action if there was a venue more appropriate. We had official languages complaints, we had privacy complaints, but we sat down with the appropriate jurisdictions—and rightfully so—if they said this was their jurisdiction.
We also had a long list of criteria to examine—good faith, whether it was sufficiently important—but in the end, we dealt with the disclosures that came to us, the reprisals, in addition to more than 100 disclosure regimes across Canada.
I should add as well that I think there's a profound misunderstanding of the work we were doing. The roughly 200 cases that keep being referred to were in fact subject to very extensive probes, what is called pre-investigations. In fact, my former deputy commissioner, who is an expert in administrative law, looked at the legislation. We had a duty of fairness to ensure that we did not prematurely launch an investigation and affect the reputation of people who are accused and raise expectations.
Essentially those probes involved interviews, documentary evidence, analysis of facts. We spent weeks, months, and occasionally years to look at those probes, and every one was documented thoroughly. At the end of the day, I am proud to say that there was consensus in all of the cases brought forward. I never had to overturn a single decision or recommendation.
I also implemented, from the first day I arrived, procedures to deal.... I fundamentally disagree that there were no procedures. I understand, Mr. Chair, that you got reports of all the procedures that were prepared by the institution. I haven't received a copy, but I'll give you just one example.
On December 13,
the procedures guide was completed.
It was very extensive, and while it carries the word ébauche, right in the body of the document it says:
“The rules contained in this guide are provisional.”
The “provisional” is because you have to gain experience.
Based on my extensive experience in managing investigations, the first thing you do is you have your rules of practice. We have checklists for every reprisal case because this was our exclusive jurisdiction. We had org charts. We had tracking systems. We also had, at my request, operational procedures developed. I hired a former senior official from the RCMP who had extensive experience in managing the policy that proceeded from my legislation. We had in fact consigned to that procedure a number of policies. For instance, how do you deal with senior officers? What are the timelines? Essentially, there was just about every possible tool that could be used. As I was leaving, similar to what I had done at the Immigration and Refugee Board, we had the mapping of how decisions were made and all the cross-checks that were done.
In addition, after decisions were made, I had quality control by my deputy commissioner, and also a former DG of audit, who did the review for file completeness. As a result of legal services reviewing files, we reopened the file, because we're not above making mistakes, but we wanted to make sure the process was solid.
One other major misconception: the tribunal. It was still early days, but I delegated under the act the review of every single reprisal case to my deputy commissioner to ensure that we had looked at them very carefully. There's a very stringent test under the act. There has to be a link between the reprisal and the disclosure. In the end, no cases met the test, but there's also one other important factor, and it's called conciliation. Under the act, conciliation is one of the venues that Parliament has given us. Most parties would prefer an informal conciliation process in order that their identity not be disclosed in front of a public hearing by the tribunal.
We compared very well. On checks and balances, I would refer to my presentation. Given that this is the accounts committee, we have exemplary financial controls and governance systems.
Very quickly, about human resources, when I took over, I inherited an administrative unit that had been operating for five years with its own way of operating. I was told that a few players were not very eager to have my leadership. In fact, there was somebody acting in the job who was very disappointed. And I was told in June that no briefing material would be prepared for me in August. The complainant who has gone into the news has indicated he became very furious on my appointment, regrettably. He refused to provide any information of substance on the investigations he had conducted previously and those that were before our organization. He had been promised an executive position without competition, like others. I must say that some members were very professional and very helpful. But at the end of the day, as a result of an exchange requesting information, he left, and the performance issue became a big concern. I could not give him performance...based on the advice of the human resources agency.
Thank you very much, Chair.
And thank you very much for your attendance today. Notwithstanding where we end up on the issues, I can't imagine this is easy, as an individual. This is not going to be fun today, but I do hope you leave here at least feeling you've been treated fairly--that's important--and if not, I know that Mr. Whitehall is here to help you assert your rights. But I do hope that, as tough as it is, you do feel that it's fair.
Having said that, I do have some tough questions. The first one is to set the stage, if you will. My late father, Leonard George Christopherson, taught me that money talks, even if it just says, “hush”.
So the issue here on the one side is that it looks like, or at least an argument can be made.... The political allegation is that the storyline goes like this: you were selected specifically by the government to go into this position, and the secret directive was, make sure nothing gets out that hurts us. That would explain why there were so few investigations, why there were so few--in fact, zero--findings of any problems. And when it looked like the AG was onto this gig, then suddenly the government and you got together and decided you needed to get out of there. To make sure that the government's wish was achieved that everything that happened during the interim time didn't come out, there was a document signed that said you wouldn't talk about anything, and here is close to a half a million dollars to encourage you to honour that. That's the picture on the one side of it.
I have questions about the AG's report, but I'd like to ask you questions about your earlier answers, when you said that, yes, they--meaning the government--wanted you to leave. Can you tell me how that was conveyed to you?
I have looked at every single conclusion and observation, and if you read my written statement, I address every single aspect. It took two years, which, in and of itself, is very unusual. This is a very small organization of 20 people. There were teams of seven auditors showing up at our door. I've had to answer every question, and I have to say I was cross-examined during three days by four people: a head litigator from the private sector, the deputy auditor general, the head investigator—who in fact had an enforcement background. I don't think she's ever worked within an audit environment. And they used police techniques. There was also a representative of either legal or audit. I have never seen an audit such as that.
The institution was represented by counsel, and they were fully satisfied with all of the responses I provided. In fact, there were no probes or pre-investigation when that investigation was launched, and I don't think they had any experience with my own legislation. Hence, they left it mid-way.
I had to retain the services of Mr. Whitehall to get the specifics of the allegations against me because I took this very seriously. And quite frankly, to this day, whether it's financial management, whether it's a probe, whether it's governance, we had every aspect of the institution.... I knew we would be the target of criticism by the nature of who we are.
I hired experts on the legal side. I had a former Supreme Court justice work with us as my special adviser to look at the legal concepts, some of which are being challenged by the Auditor General.
I had the expert in Canada in administrative law as my deputy commissioner. We resorted to experts in procurement, human resources, to ensure we had the right approach. I had three former executives who came to work paid as officers because they believe in the mandate. In fact, on what we have done, even on the human resources, we were shown as models. We were invited to do presentations on the model. We have the most advanced financial controls in the public sector, as recognized by the Comptroller General. We've invested so much to make this organization above scrutiny from a management perspective, but as well from a legal, from a quasi-judicial, from an administrative—and my three annual reports, sir, speak for themselves. They tell the story.
In the second chapter I talk about the unique challenges of a small agency. I was not alone--
Thank you, Chair. Welcome to our witnesses here today.
Madame Ouimet, of course, I recall the first time I met you. I served on the government operations committee during the vetting process when we first were given the opportunity to pass judgment on your capacity, capabilities, and your willingness to serve. It should be noted for my colleagues on the other side, in case they're concerned about the partisan nature, the chair of the committee at that time was a member of the opposition. The opposition carried the majority on the committee, but I can tell you that regardless of the composition of the committee that day, at that point a unanimous motion from government operations was put forward to endorse your position, based on the presentation and based on the testimony given.
That's all fine, but here I find myself a few years later saying that was then, this is now. This committee has always had a tremendous amount of respect for the Office of the Auditor General, and we respond primarily to the concerns and reports of the Auditor General. We've had no occasion in the past to doubt the veracity of those reports. So here we are today in a bit of a box, in that the Auditor General's report has been tremendously scathing of your conduct and yet your statements run contrary to that.
With the record you had, how did we get to that in the three years, to the situation we have before us now where we're faced with this difficult challenge? Tell me how and why you think we're in this position now where this committee is entrusted with following this up? Quite frankly, committee members want to know, and when there are dollars and cents involved and many allegations, I think Canadians deserve to know.
Let's continue, Ms. Ouimet, on another aspect of the problem. One of the emails mentioned earlier came from the Prime Minister's Office and said this:
...if you could advise PCO as to the status of his request.
This is a matter you addressed earlier. The Office asked you to provide additional information on the issue. The name had been removed, but this is a specific case. I also have questions about another email. It came from Treasury Board. It says this: Ms. Marie-Josée Beauchesne, our director, wishes to revise the document ahead of time to ensure that it is consistent with the content of the workshop.
You were going to make a presentation. Why did Treasury Board want to revise your documents? If you were independent, Ms. Ouimet, why were these two federal offices interfering in your work?
You were an independent officer of Parliament. We agree on that. Everyone knows that. Why, in addition to having specific information, did the want to buy your silence? He acted the same way he did yesterday in the House of Commons. He concluded that he was above Parliament. He bought your silence for half a million dollars. The reason remains unknown. You say that it is because of the Office of the Auditor General, but why do you justify yourself with a letter from the Auditor General? You did not justify yourself to the Auditor General, in Parliament or to the people you are accountable to, but to the Prime Minister's Office.
The links are so obvious! There is no independence, Ms. Ouimet. What is more, the allowed himself to buy you out for a half a million dollars. That is how I see things. You were supposedly doing your job. That is at least what you are saying and what some members of government would appear to be saying. But the Prime Minister ignored the decision of Parliament and the Senate and decided to buy your silence for reasons we would like to know about. Those things have not been clarified.
Why did the want to buy your silence? If, according to your hiring, you were accountable to Parliament and the Senate, why was he the one who paid you half a million dollars? That makes no sense. There must be other reasons, and those are the reasons we want explained. Otherwise, you are directly accountable to Parliament.
I will start with the final observation. I was somewhat confused, I must admit, because there were a lot of aspects. I will, however, do my best to answer the questions.
First of all, I did not have access to those emails. I think that unfortunately, you are perhaps quoting them out of context. Questions were perhaps asked. I cannot assume that a whistleblower has already gone to the Privy Council Office. If there is an issue, the registrar will be able to say he is looking after it. That is my only...
On the other question, I did more than 150 presentations across Canada, namely in central organizations, to explain the act. I have no idea which presentation that was. I am an officer of Parliament. No one changes the substance of my messages, but as regard to the format, there may be... I would really need more details on that. Sometimes, Treasury Board has responsibilities vis-à-vis a human resources officer. Under the act, these people are responsible for preparing certain sections of a presentation. Never, ever, was the substance of my presentations changed.
As regards the third question, after only three years of service, the Government of Canada made me an offer which I accepted. I cannot add to that, as I am not familiar with what the said and I am not in a position to deal with that.
Let me be clear. I joined an office that did not want to support me. They had not even met me, and they had made it clear that they would not support me. And I am not unique. There was even a case study at the Canada School of Public Service reporting this.
I had to set a direction. I had to set up an institution. We were building the plane while flying it. In fact, I was even audited before I arrived, from April.
I wanted the support of all staff, but if people do not want to support me—they made their own decisions within weeks—I had a job to do. I did it with integrity, in accordance with all of the applicable policies. There was a key expert in human resources who knew all the complainants, who in fact has not been interviewed by the Auditor General, and who would confirm that I adhered to all of the policies.
In addition, we got training, coaches, special retreats. If you look at my written communication, I commend staff, but there is a direction, and if people don't like the direction, they are entitled to.... I have read every single testimony, Mr. Chair, and while some people say it was a charged atmosphere, I personally was well treated. The two people who were allegedly marginalized were the first ones to phone me in my retirement and have been sending me thank you notes ever since. Some got promotions elsewhere because they deserved it. Two went on pre-retirement, and there were transitional team members who were not happy in their previous positions either, but the core group stayed with me throughout that period.
We have built together the institution that you have today, which will deliver on those 15 investigations.
I urge parliamentarians and pressure groups to help the whistleblowers who are currently being dealt with now so that the decisions can come, so that my institution—my former institution, I'm still passionate about the work I did because I invested in it professionally and personally—will deliver on the act. Perhaps it's not the perfect tool Parliament wanted, but it will deliver.
I am absolutely personally offended. I've treated people with respect, with dignity, and people--maybe in their own minds, as we each have our own perception--the vast majority of employees, which you saw in the written testimony and even in the testimony I read, enjoyed the challenges. I guarantee you this.
Madame Faille, Madame Ouimet, we're going to wrap up in a moment or two.
I want to ask a couple of questions, if I might, and then I'm going to go to Mr. Christopherson, who has given me notice of a question he'd like to put before the committee about next steps.
Madame Ouimet, you strike me as a very professional, very prepared type of individual. You're not a person who would be an easy pushover, in my view, and you started off by indicating to all committee members something they already know, and that is that you are appointed by an order from both the House of Commons and the Senate, both houses of Parliament. You can only be removed for cause or by a similar order from both houses.
We didn't issue such an order in the Commons. Why wouldn't you resist any kind of movement to have you out of your position? The reason you have a seven-year appointment is that parliamentarians want you as their agent, not anybody else's agent. I'm at a loss to understand why you would have accepted any kind of a suggestion, a contract, an offer--I think you put it--that cuts you short of your contract four years before its expiry from people to whom you don't answer.
Thank you very much, Chair. I only need 60 seconds.
When we began, we started with the Auditor General's line. The Auditor General said in her report:
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.
And from Madame Ouimet today, we heard:
The Auditor General's conclusions constitute a serious and direct attack on my personal and professional integrity. They are ungrounded, and I utterly refute them. My commitment to the public sector is solid and long-standing, and I continue to fulfill my mandate with integrity and in the public interest.
My apologies. That was from March 10 of last year.
I asked Madame Ouimet whether she still feels that way, and obviously she does. To me, in the interest of Madame Ouimet's reputation, the integrity of the Auditor General's department has now somewhat--well not somewhat--been placed directly in conflict, or in question, at least.
To me, Chair, what we need at our next meeting, at the next available meeting, is to have Madame Ouimet return and to have Madam Fraser. I am advised that in the last half-hour, through the “Kadyverse”, the Auditor General has made the statement that she stands by her report. We are so far apart on something that's very significant.
So I move that at the next available meeting we ask Ms. Ouimet to return, and we also bring in, invite, Madam Fraser to join us to allow us to start to get at the core of some of these questions.