Investigation into an alleged kickback scheme found no wrongdoing

A designated officer within the education sector contacted the Public Interest Commissioner’s (PIC) office, seeking advice in relation to a disclosure of wrongdoing that had been received.  The designated officer shared concerns that the organization did not have the resources or expertise to conduct an investigation.  After consulting with the employee who made the disclosure, all agreed the disclosure would be referred to PIC.

It was alleged an employee entered into a kickback scheme involving an independent contractor.  As part of the scheme, it was alleged the employee would complete the work under the contract and receive a portion of the payment made to the contractor.

The investigation sought to determine whether a contravention of an Act had occurred or if public funds were misappropriated through an illegitimate contract, constituting a gross-mismanagement of public funds.  For the purpose of the investigation, the designated officer provided over 60,000 electronic files relating to maintenance contracts and email communications.  Documents from the time period where the alleged wrongdoings occurred were carefully analyzed.  No evidence of a kickback scheme nor questionable contracts or agreements were found, and in the absence of evidence substantiating the allegation, a finding of wrongdoing could not be supported.

It was encouraging to recognize that an employee within the public sector had the confidence in their organization’s internal whistleblower policy to come forward and report a potential wrongdoing.  The designated officer need also be commended for contacting the PIC office for assistance and guidance.  This positive and collaborative approach to investigations captures the spirit of the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act and promotes public confidence of the organization.

Timeline of communication shows an alleged reprisal could not be supported

An employee is protected from reprisal once they make a disclosure of wrongdoing to the Commissioner or to their designated officer in accordance with the procedures established by their organization.  They may also seek the advice of their supervisor about how to make a disclosure.  Under these conditions outlined in section 24 of the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection Act (the Act), an employee is covered under the protection provisions of the Act

A former employee of a government department alleged he suffered a reprisal in the form of a dismissal as a result of having sought advice from the Government of Alberta’s (GOA) designated officer about making a disclosure of wrongdoing.

The facts of the matter were examined to establish whether the department formed the intent to terminate the individual’s employment before or after his protected activity under the Act.

The investigation found that there was no connection between the decision to terminate employment and contact with the GOA’s designated officer.  Evidence further confirmed the intention to terminate employment occurred within the department, prior to the disclosure being made.  For this reason, the investigation concluded that the allegation of reprisal could not be supported.

Investigation finds no links; no wrongdoing

A public entity contacted our office for assistance with a series of wrongdoing allegations, made against them by a former employee of the organization.  All of the allegations were assessed, and a single disclosure of wrongdoing was found to be jurisdictional under the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act.  With the cooperation of the complainant, and the assistance of the designated officer and director of internal audit for the organization, an investigation was initiated.

The investigation would address whether a lack of enforcement action by the organization against licensees, out of compliance with industry directives, resulted in a substantial and specific danger to the environment or to the life, health or safety of individuals.

Through the investigation, it became clear that although the organization knowingly and effectively halted enforcement action under the identified directive, no evidence of this causing a substantial and specific danger to the environment or to the life, health or safety of individuals was found.  Further, the organization had already made changes to their compliance strategy, with the implementation of two pilot programs for the purpose of improving issues and applying more appropriate measures for compliance.

Because the decision to halt enforcement action surfaced no links to a substantial and specific danger to the environment or to the life, health or safety of individuals, the allegation of wrongdoing could not be supported.

Gross mismanagement of employees invites scrutiny and the Commissioner’s help

Under the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act, the definition of wrongdoing was updated as of March 1, 2018, to include gross mismanagement of employees through bullying, harassment or intimidation.  These conditions in the workplace arise when gross mismanagement occurs deliberately and shows a reckless or wilful disregard for proper management; issues of maltreatment are systemic, and indicate a problem in the overall culture of the organization.

A disclosure of wrongdoing was received alleging gross-mismanagement of employees under the leadership of a senior official.  In order to determine if the matter met the Public Interest Commissioner’s jurisdictional requirements, inquiries and interviews were conducted with employees and witnesses.  Through the interviews, instances of unprofessional conduct were reported and witnesses shared examples where the individual named in the complaint had demonstrated behaviours indicative of bullying, harassment and intimidation, resulting in a problem in the culture of the organization.

Following the conclusion of the initial inquiries, the individual named in the allegation of wrongdoing elected to resign from the organization.

Off-duty socializing may have professional consequences

The office received a complaint from a public sector employee concerned by the tone and language of written comments made by other employees in an online forum. The comments read as highly offensive and discriminatory in nature and although the online forum was extracurricular in nature, there were multiple employees involved. The events pre dated the March 2018 amendment to the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act which would have allowed for the investigation of the matter as a gross mismanagement of employees, relating to a culture of workplace bullying, harassment or intimidation.

However, due to the seriousness of the concern and the sensitive positions the employees held, we brought the situation to the attention of the department. Our office subsequently learned the department had reviewed the matter and taken steps to address the employees’ conduct. In this case, the Commissioner declined to investigate the allegation however, similar type events reported to our office that occurred after March 2018 could be considered jurisdictional to the Public Interest Commissioner and subject to an investigation.

Effective use of informal resolution satisfies complainant

An employee reported his supervisor was performing private consulting services similar to the duties the supervisor had with her department. The complainant found documents on a shared server, including invoices from the supervisor’s private company for duties performed on the same sites where their department had projects. He alleged the supervisor used connections and government documents to support private work.

After reviewing the matter, it was determined that government documents were not used by the supervisor to further her private work. While the supervisor may have breached department policies, the conduct did not meet the threshold of what could be considered a wrongdoing under the Act.

Our investigator met with the complainant to explain our findings. Executive management for the department was advised of the situation, which allowed them to look into the potential policy breaches by the supervisor. The matter was resolved informally and to the satisfaction of the complainant.