Senate ethics officer asks upper chamber to be more open with documents
The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. The Senate will remain in what is Ottawa's Old Train Station during the renovations of the Parliament Hill Centre Block. (CANADIAN PRESS / Sean Kilpatrick)
The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, July 2, 2019 4:55PM EDT
OTTAWA -- The Senate's ethics watchdog is telling the upper chamber to provide him documents more quickly to speed up investigations and strengthen his independence.
Pierre Legault recommended in a report that senators use parliamentary privilege in fewer instances to withhold files, reports and emails from him, particularly in cases of sexual harassment.
He wrote that slow responses and refusals could affect the findings of a probe, cause unnecessary delays and potentially compromise the watchdog's independence.
Legault also says the ethics officer should weigh in on a harassment case only if the upper chamber determines it is significant enough to cause damage to the reputation of the Senate.
The recommendations are attached to a report made public just before the Canada Day long weekend that found former senator Don Meredith harassed a half-dozen employees, as well as a constable in the parliamentary protective service.
Parliamentary privilege is meant to protect legislators' ability to do their jobs without fear of interference or retribution by, for instance, keeping outsiders from nosing around in their official business. In this case, Legault struggled with being an appointee of the Senate, doing work for the Senate, being stymied by the Senate's and senators' reluctance to co-operate with him.
The co-founder of the group Democracy Watch said the ethics officer's notes on his investigation of Meredith's conduct describe a layer-cake of conflicts for senators -- first they must decide harassment has taken place, but then they have control over what investigators can view.
"It's a recipe for cover-ups and abuse of vulnerable people for a committee of senators to control investigations of allegations of harassment or other wrongdoing by senators, especially when the committee claims it has the right to keep information about wrongdoing secret," Duff Conacher said.
The Senate's conflict-of-interest committee said in a statement that it will review the report but won't make any further comments for now. Any decisions the committee makes would come in the form of a report that would be made public.
Meredith resigned in 2017 before the Senate could vote on a recommendation that he be expelled over a sexual relationship with a teenage girl.
At the time, the ethics officer was also looking into allegations of workplace harassment after top senators became concerned about the high rate of turnover among Meredith's office staff. His review only came after the internal committee examination confirmed senators' concerns about a toxic workplace.
During the review, the details of which Legault made public Friday, the ethics officer ran into hurdles accessing documents needed as part of the probe.
Legault wrote that the internal-economy committee -- charged with overseeing Senate rules and spending -- "invoked parliamentary privilege on a number of occasions," meaning the ethics officer couldn't get what he wanted. The committee also vetted all requests for information he made to the Senate's administration.
"Being required to wait for the (committee) to approve my requests and, in some cases deny them while requesting further details and information about them, may result in unnecessary delays and also may compromise my independence," Legault wrote.
Legault also noted that refusing information based on parliamentary privilege "may result in a lack of evidence" that affects findings.