Watchdogs to MPs: Do more homework on gov't hiring
Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet is shown in Ottawa in this June 19, 2007 file photo. (Patrick Doyle / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, March 3, 2011 7:47PM EST
OTTAWA - Parliament's independent officers are advising MPs to more carefully vet appointments to watchdog roles in the wake of former public sector integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet's spectacular flame-out.
Seven independent agents of Parliament, including the auditor general and chief electoral officer, have sent a joint letter to five Commons committees urging them to learn lessons from the Ouimet fiasco.
Ouimet resigned shortly before Auditor General Sheila Fraser issued a scathing report last December that castigated the former commissioner for failing to do her job and berating her staff.
Fraser found Ouimet had received 228 allegations of wrongdoing from bureaucrats and investigated only seven. She had not made one finding of wrongdoing.
"While the report of the Auditor General noted serious concerns with the performance of a fellow agent of Parliament, it can also be viewed as evidence that the accountability system works and that there are mechanisms in place to monitor the activities of the agents of Parliament," the watchdogs write in the Feb. 16 letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.
"It is timely, however, to examine whether the issues reported by the Auditor General could have been identified sooner."
That's a diplomatic poke at House of Commons committees, which the agents say have many tools at their disposal to scrutinize the appointments and work of watchdogs. For one, MPs can ask members of the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic body that supports the prime minister's office, to appear at their various committees to explain how and why a certain person was hired.
Cabinet appoints agents of Parliament after the names have been approved by both the Commons and the Senate. Leaders of the opposition parties must also be consulted on the appointments.
"The fact that agents of Parliament have security of tenure and are removable only for cause on the address of both Houses further emphasizes the need for a rigorous appointment process," they write.
"Accountability mechanisms may not compensate for the appointment of an unsuitable candidate."
And just in case MPs aren't sure what to ask PCO staff about those appointments, the agents provide a list of possible questions, including: Was the vacancy advertised? How many candidates were interviewed? Who was on the selection/advisory committee? What were their qualifications?
The paper goes on to describe the different reports that Commons committeescould look at to ensure that agents of Parliament are doing their work properly -- annual departmental performance reports and internal audit plans and reports as just a few examples.
The paper's cover letter was signed by Auditor General Sheila Fraser, Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart and Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser.
NDP MP Pat Martin, vice-chairman of the Commons committee on government operations and estimates, called the paper a "slap down for a committee that was asleep at the switch."
"I accept some of the blame for that as the vice-chair of the oversight committee that was supposed to be watching Christiane Ouimet. Report after report after report came by our committee without comment," Martin said Thursday.
He called the missive from the watchdogs "a rebuke and a verbal spanking in very diplomatic terms, but a spanking nevertheless."
Ouimet's interim replacement, Mario Dion, also put his name to the document which describes agents of Parliament as "guardians of values that transcend the political objectives and partisan debates of the day."
The Canadian Press reported earlier this week that Dion had sent an email last month to a PCO official, aimed at giving Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters a heads up about a matter that might come up during a committee inquiry into Ouimet's conduct.
"A former senior official at the office has retained legal counsel in order to pursue a claim for constructive dismissal. I will be pleased to provide details to a PCO officer to ensure Wayne is not blind-sided," Dion writes.
Liberal MP Joe Volpe has said Dion's email, and others between Ouimet and PCO officials and cabinet ministers, suggests the integrity commissioner's office is not acting in the independent manner expected of watchdogs.
A source familiar with the terms of Ouimet's departure said she had been paid approximately $400,000 in severance.