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Civil servants under investigation for working in ministerial offices

[PoliticsWatch updated 1:25 p.m. March 29, 2007]

OTTAWA  — The circumstances surrounding the hiring of 97 public servants who had worked in ministers offices dating back to 1990 is being examined Public Service Commissioner Maria Barrados.  
 
Last month Barrados announced the scope of her investigation will include 97 public servants dating back to 1990. 

The investigation is putting a spotlight on public servants who take a leave of absence to work in a minister's office and then return to the public service. 

Barrados is conducting the probe and making it a priority because of the interest of MPs and the government following her discovery last fall that two former Liberal aides landed what she alleged were "phantom jobs" in two separate federal departments.

The aides, who Barrados cannot name for privacy reasons, were former public servants who were at the time on unpaid leave to work in the offices of two Liberal cabinet ministers. 

Their old public service jobs had been filled and Barrados said the two aides were "part of those discussions" in getting Health Canada and Public Works and Government Services Canada to create new positions for them to later be filled under a special assignment program for bureaucrats. 

The two positions allowed the aides to skip the priority system, which is the traditional route most public servants take to return to the bureaucracy, according to Barrados. 

"They had used their position in ministers' offices to have these positions created for them and maintained for them," Barrados said in a recent interview with PoliticsWatch. "Then when their time was up in exempt staff, they came directly into a department guaranteed job and salary, everything there waiting for them. For us that was entirely inappropriate."

Barrados said she refers to the positions as phantom jobs because the two aides "were never assigned anything. They weren't there. They never held them, but they were just sort of like a holding spot for them." 

Upon discovering the incident Barrados revoked the two positions. 

After the release of her annual report in October of last year, then Treasury Board President John Baird seized upon Barrados' discovery of another controversy involving the Liberals and the culture of entitlement. 

The Conservatives campaigned in the last election on the issue of accountability and Liberal scandal. 
 
But Barrados later told the Commons Government Operations committee that it wasn't as simple as a couple of Liberals staffers creating jobs for themselves, but in fact was approved by the deputy ministers in each department.

"It's the department that has to create the position, so obviously people in human resources would have some knowledge, and it's the deputy minister who had to approve these," Barrados told the committee. 

David Marshall is the current deputy minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada and Morris Rosenberg is the current deputy minister Health Canada. 

The two departments also stood by their decision to create the special assignments for the two aides at the time, according to Barrados.

Barrados told PoliticsWatch that despite the deputy ministers' originally approving the jobs they have not challenged her since. 

"Nobody challenged me in the way that you can challenge me. You can take me to court. Nobody did any of that. So I assume that without any real challenge we may have a difference of opinion of the moment, but nobody has really challenged what our conclusion was."

Health Canada said in an email response to PoliticsWatch that the deputy minister has no plans to appeal or challenge Barrados' decision. 

"The Department has already complied with the corrective actions and therefore has no further comment," Health Canada said. 

Public Works could not respond to PoliticsWatch's request for an update. 

Barados told PoliticsWatch that she can't give a breakdown at the moment of how many of the 97 public servants being scrutinized worked in the offices of Liberal or Conservative cabinet ministers. However, the scope of her investigation goes far back enough to include civil servants who worked in ministers' offices in the governments of Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell in the early 1990s. Many of these officials are now in senior ranks of the public service. 

She is also excluding clerical and administrative staff from her probe, saying there is "less risk" for people in those jobs to be "non-partisan."

"If you're doing office support work that work would not be very different whether you're working for a minister or whether you're working for a government manager nor would you likely be questioned about the integrity and the ability to do the work given that you might have worked in a minister's office," she said.

Barrados said she is a proponent of public servants gaining experience and insight working in ministers' offices "but I think it's the kind of movement that we need to monitor and I think we should have a few rules of the road around it."

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