How to Avoid Accountability in Ottawa

Posted by Shannon Walker

on December 9, 2013

stock photo canada flagWhere have accountability and responsibility gone to? Is there anyone out there who really cares what has happened? The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act through the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (OPSIC) is supposed to aid whistleblowers and lessen bureaucratic corruption. Under Mario Dion, it was expected to provide a new age of “accountability.”

The expectation was even higher after the fiasco of the first commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, who launched only seven investigations and did not issue any findings of wrongdoing while in office. So seven years later, where are we? Not far from where we started, it seems. Accountability continues to suffer, whistleblowers continue to be crushed and, from our perspective, the senior bureaucracy has little to fear from their former colleague, Dion.

It appears that he limits his involvement only to cases on which the burden of proof by the whistleblower has been met. Meanwhile, he has avoided many cases that Canadians for Accountability believes had merit.

The fact is, it’s easy for him to do so and we recently came across another means by which his office can avoid being involved in political situations or having to criticize his former colleagues— the senior bureaucrats of the federal bureaucracy.

On May 6, 2013, I referred a case to Dion’s attention from non-government whistleblowers. Accompanying my letter was a thick package of information for his review and for him to determine the validity of the situation. Even before I heard anything, I told these whistleblowers to assume that it was a long shot situation to assume that there would be a positive result. From our perspective, OPSIC is reluctant to do anything that disturbs either the political climate or Dion’s former colleagues. I waited and waited patiently for a reply.

Finally on July 16, 2013, over two months later, I was contacted by the commissioner’s intake officer. First, she told me they were just now starting to look at the information. Then she asked whether I had sent this information elsewhere. While I was not surprised that OPSIC had not looked at the information for more than two months, I did wonder why I would be asked the question about sending information to someone else. When I enquired, I was told that if my request had been sent elsewhere and if any other body was considering investigation, OPSIC could not launch an investigation.

I was surprised by this response and replied that at the time I wrote the letter, no other office was doing an investigation. Furthermore, I also stated that it was unreasonable to delay an initial review by over two months as it undermines the process: few motivated whistleblowers would just wait and wait for action. Although the comment was not appreciated, I pointed out that it was interesting to learn that the Commissioner could easily place OPSIC in a position to refuse an investigation simply by delaying the initial review.

Could this explain why it had taken two months to contact me and to commence reading the file? Were they hoping that I had not waited for their action? The optics and political ramifications are low and safe if you can refuse for cause, regardless whether you are the architect of the cause.

Finally, over three months after the original request, on Aug. 7, 2013, I received the following in a letter from Mr. Dion: “My office has concluded its review of the information you provided and this letter is to inform you of my decision not to investigate your allegations.”

Since waiting would allow corruption to continue and this situation was procurement related, I then contacted the Office of the Procurement Ombudsman (OPO). My predication was that the OPO would accept the case. Frank Brunetta, the procurement ombudsman is gaining a well-earned reputation for his integrity and for believing in high standards and a willingness to investigate to ensure these standards are maintained. He accepted the case on its merits and, although details are not yet public, validated that the information was accurate.

There is also one very interesting observation made by Mario Dion. In his August 7, 2013 letter he referred to an email that was submitted as evidence. In his view, the email showed that the agency knew of the problem and therefore had fulfilled its obligations. What is significant, by investigating, the procurement ombudsman used the same email statement to illustrate that the agency had known of the situation and done nothing. In time this all will become a matter of public record.

So what conclusions can be drawn? The Office of the Integrity Commissioner isn’t interested in aggressively pursuing its mandate. It strongly suggests that the integrity commissioner would rather avoid helping whistleblowers than investigating and resolving a situation. Look elsewhere for help as you won’t find it in this office.

Posted with permission from Allan Cutler

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on December 2, 2013.