After 10 years as Canada’s Auditor General, Sheila Fraser retires today. During her 10 year mandate a Readers Digest poll listed her as one of the Top 10 Most Trusted Canadians.
Ms. Fraser graduated from McGill University in 1972 with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. In 1981 she was employed by Ernst and Young where she worked on assignment to the Auditor General of Quebec in some cases, amongst other Quebec government offices. In May 1999, she joined the Office of the Auditor General of Canada as Deputy Auditor General, Audit Operations. She was subsequently appointed Auditor General in 2000.
Ms. Fraser made headlines in Canada when her report on the sponsorship scandal rocked the country’s political scene. She made the news again on November 26, 2006 with her report on the former ombudsman of federal inmates – the report made a series of allegations that the former ombudsman, Ron Stewart, had “often skipped work and collected $325,000 in improper or questionable salary, vacation pay and expenses during his 14-year tenure”.The case is currently being reviewed by the RCMP to determine if criminal charges are warranted.
She gave her last public speech on May 25 at the Canadian Club of Ottawa, entitled Serving Parliament Through a Decade of Change, where she warned the government faces long-term fiscal pressures that will mean “very hard choices” between raising taxes or cutting programs and encouraged the government to publicize its long-term fiscal projections because “without them, we cannot begin to understand the scale and complexity of our financial challenges and the implication of policy choices.”
The National Post columnist Tamsin McMahon took a look back at Ms. Fraser’s ten most important findings from her decade in office:
1. The Sponsorship Scandal (2003-2004)
Arguably Ms. Fraser’s most significant investigation came early in her tenure when she was asked to probe federal contracts of Montreal advertising firm Groupaction Marketing, which spawned a full-scale audit of the Liberal government’s entire Quebec sponsorship program that found “senior public servants broke just about every rule in the book.” Her findings that nearly $100 million had been funnelled to Liberal-friendly Quebec advertising and communications firms who had little to show for the money sparked an RCMP probe, a public inquiry, the firing of senior civil servants and criminal convictions. It also brought the Liberal government to its knees and paved the way for a Conservative victory.
Ms. Fraser called the sponsorship scandal a “pivotal event” in her career, in a report she released last week (May 25) looking back on her decade in office. “The sponsorship audit affected the way our office was seen by government and the public and, just as important, the way we saw ourselves and the importance of our role,” she wrote.
2. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (2003)
After alerting the RCMP to problems with the government’s sponsorship program, Ms. Fraser called in the RCMP once again in 2003 to investigate former privacy commissioner George Radwanski after her audit of his office turned up overspending on travel and hospitality and workplace culture so fraught with favouritism and punishment that she called it a “reign of terror.” Her investigation found employees in Mr. Radwanski’s “inner circle” got promotions and raises, while those who fell out of favour with the commissioner were banished to a different floor and had their names stripped from reports. Ms. Fraser also accused the commissioner and his communications director of spending extravagantly on hospitality and travel expenses with little proof that the trips had led to any meaningful work. Mr. Radwanksi called the probe a “vicious personal attack.” He was later acquitted of charges of fraud and breach of trust in an Ontario court.
3. Long-gun registry (2002 and 2006)
Ms. Fraser’s first report on the Liberal government’s controversial firearms registry erupted into a political scandal when she revealed that Parliament had largely been kept in the dark about the spiralling costs of the program, which were set to hit $1-billion.
She called the government’s actions “appalling” and said she was forced to suspend her audit when the justice department refused to hand over enough information to allow auditors to fully examine the program. Her report became ammunition for the incoming Conservatives to rally public support to scrap the registry, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to do with his new majority government.
“It was one of the most damning reports on government waste that had ever been made,” said Saskatchewan Conservative Gary Breitkreutz, who had been pushing the previous auditor-general to examine the registry.
4. Office of the Integrity Commissioner (2010)
The Conservative government created the office of integrity commissioner in 2007 to investigate complaints of government wrongdoing and protect federal whistle-blowers. But Ms. Fraser’s audit accused commissioner Christiane Ouimet of ignoring complaints and abusing her staff. In three years, the office received 228 complaints, but investigated only five and found no wrongdoing, the audit said. Ms. Ouimet “yelled, swore, and also berated, marginalized and intimidated” employees and circulated dozens of e-mails about a staffer she believed had complained about her to the auditor-general’s office, Ms. Fraser found.
Ms. Ouimet abruptly quit the post in the middle of the audit, collecting $530,000 in severance payments. An independent review of the office released in May backed up the audit’s key findings.
5. Office of the Prison Ombudsman (2006)
Ms. Fraser’s audit of Ron Stewart, pictured, the former CFL star turned prison ombudsman who retired in 2004, found he had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable payments, including money for days he spent on vacation, travel to cities hosting the Grey Cup championships that he billed as a trip taken to “investigate inmate complaints” and the purchase of two computers used by his family.
Mr. Stewart collected nearly $100,000 for vacation pay, claiming he hadn’t taken a vacation for 14 years of his 26-year stint as ombudsman. Despite his frequent absences, the audit found Mr. Stewart had been handed performance bonuses over six years and that he doled out $260,000 worth of budget surpluses to staffers, disguised as overtime payments. Mr. Stewart eventually agreed to pay back $77,500 of the money.
6. Changes to the AG office
While not a finding, one of Ms. Fraser’s most significant achievements was overhauling how her office conducts its business. She began posting detailed reports of her own personal expenses, including the names of government official she met with, and in 2003 underwent the world’s first value-for-money audit of her own office. In 2003, she began issuing annual status reports that followed up on how well government departments implemented — or ignored – recommendations from her audits. The focus of the follow-up reports was to ensure governments addressed “high-risk, high-cost issues,” Ms. Fraser said.
7. Federal Anti-Terrorism Program (2005)
In 2005, Ms. Fraser’s audit of the government’s $7.7-billion anti-terrorism program, developed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., found Canada was vulnerable to a chemical, biological or nuclear terrorist attack. Millions in funding meant to boost Canada’s defences against terrorism had been either wasted or left unspent because risk assessments to decide how best to spend the money were never done and only a small fraction of the nearly 6,000 front-line responders weren’t properly trained to handle a terrorist attack.
8. MPs Expenses (2010)
Ms. Fraser scored a victory when Parliamentarians bowed to her demands to examine their office expenses to see if taxpayers were getting value for their money. The government and most opposition parties caused a public furor when they criticized Ms. Fraser’s request and the Board of Internal Economy, a secretive committee that handles House of Commons expenses, suggested an audit of the legislature went beyond Ms. Fraser’s mandate. But after weeks of public protest, Parliament announced it would invite Ms. Fraser’s office to examine a “statistical sampling” of the office expenses for both senators and MPs. While Ms. Fraser promised not to name names in her audit, she said she would launch investigations into any questionable spending and refer more serious findings to the RCMP. The reports from both the House of Commons and the Senate are due this fall.
9. Military Helicopter purchase (2010)
Ms. Fraser’s 2010 audit uncovered massive cost overruns in the government’s purchase of more than 40 military helicopters, findings the auditor-general said had implications for the government’s planned $16-billion procurement of F-35 fighter jets.
Her review found the Department of National Defence had spent $11-billion on the helicopter purchases, double its original estimate. She lambasted the government for sole-sourcing the contract and deliberately misleading the Treasury Board in 2006 about how much the purchases would cost. The cost overruns might force the Canadian armed forces to cut training and use of the helicopters to stay within budget, she warned.
10. G8/G20 Infrastructure Legacy Fund (2011)
The upcoming report on the government’s $50-million fund for infrastructure projects in communities that participated in the G8 and G20 summits was less notable for its findings than for the fact that draft versions of the report were leaked during the recent federal election. The leaked audit, whose finding have never been confirmed by Ms. Fraser, alleged that the government had misinformed Parliament on how money that flowed into cabinet minister Tony Clement’s Ontario riding would be spent warned of “legal questions” surrounding the payments.
Ms. Fraser refused demands to unveil her final report, which was set to be published before the election but will now be made public on June 9, after Ms. Fraser retires.