Geri Knudson, the former Human Resources and Skills Development Service Canada regional manager in The Pas, found to have grossly mismanaged and misused public funds in a March 8 report issued by federal public sector integrity commissioner Mario Dion, has been working as a human resources office for University College of the North (UCN) at their campus in The Pas.
Alyson Queen, communications director for Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley said earlier this month the federal government is taking the Dion’s report very seriously and turned the file over to RCMP late last year for further investigation. "We also look forward to further parliamentary oversight on the matter," she added.
Jim Scott, acting external relations director at UCN, told the Winnipeg Free Press, the newspaper which broke the news of Knudson’s employment at UCN last week, the school is aware of the allegations against Knudson and the details of her conduct laid out by the federal integrity commissioner.
But Scott said the university would not comment further on what he called a confidential personnel matter. "We're just not going to comment on it," he reportedly told the paper.
Knudson left the federal public service in 2010 during the investigation by the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada, an independent agency of Parliament created in 2007 under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act.
The commissioner is an agent of Parliament appointed by resolution of the Senate and House of Commons and reports directly to Parliament. The commissioner is the chief executive of the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and has the rank and powers of a deputy head of a department.
Dion’s report on Knudson marks the first time the office of the federal integrity commissioner, during its five-year existence, has found any federal employee guilty of ethical lapses. For nine years, Knudson worked as a Service Canada regional manager in charge of at least four offices in Northern Manitoba, including The Pas and Thompson.
"I have determined that the breadth, severity and frequency of the manager's wrongdoing constitute gross mismanagement in the public sector," Dion said March 8. "I strongly encourage all public sector employees to read this report and understand the importance of respecting all legislation, policies, procedures and guidelines in the course of their day-to-day work and to always conduct themselves in an ethical manner."
Neither Scott nor Knudson have responded as of yet to Nickel Belt News requests for interviews.
In his report, Dion found that Knudson favoured family and friends in the workplace, including giving a relative a chance to earn significant overtime and hiring a family friend even though a more suitable candidate existed. The commissioner also found that Knudson used public funds to buy unnecessary items from her own business, including massagers and water bottles that cost $80 each.
Knudson, he found, also misused public funds and assets by falsifying travel claims, using a government fleet vehicle almost exclusively, even on weekends, while other employees had to rent cars for work-related trips, and by buying two LCD high-definition televisions in 2009 later found in her home. A year later, Knudson ordered three more TVs, one of which has never been found.
Among Dion’s other findings:
Knudson gave her child a chance to earn significant overtime, as well as mileage and meal allowances, in an "unreasonable and unacceptable" fashion;
hired a family friend, who was living with the manager at the time, to fill a job 200 kilometres away in a satellite office, incurring significant expenses. There was a qualified candidate already living near the office;
took a government printer and two pieces of office furniture to a fitness franchise she operated on the side;
used an employee’s government-issued credit card and forged the employee’s signature;
encouraged and approved government purchases of useless items from her own business, including massagers and magnets she used "to balance the employee’s magnetic fields."
falsified travel claims, expensed meals that were not allowed.
Knudson also ignored rules about confidentiality and disclosed personal information about employees to other members of staff, Dion found, and used the passwords and access codes of employees who worked in different offices to make financial entries without their knowledge or consent.
Dion also found Knudson bullied and intimidated her staff.
"The manager created a work environment rife with fear," he wrote. "Many staff told our investigators that the manager yelled at them and used offensive language." Frightened public servants complained to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada about Knudson in February 2010.
"Although staff had concerns regarding the manager's behaviour for some time, they expressed fear for their jobs if they came forward to complain to the department or participated in an investigation," the report said.
"The discloser stated that many of the staff were frightened of the manager who they described as an autocrat and a bully who threatened reprisal against employees who questioned the manager."
The employees, who lived in small communities, said they feared that repercussions from their accusations might affect even their families.
Not even the commissioner's guarantee of secrecy could allay those fears, the report said.
“Even with the confidentiality associated with the disclosure process, many employees who participated did so with fear and ongoing trepidation."
The commissioner did not publish Knudson’s name in the public portion of his report.
Service Canada operates 18 offices in Manitoba where people can apply for employment insurance, a Social Insurance Number (SIN) card, get help finding a job or access other federal programs. In Northern Manitoba, there are Service Canada offices in Thompson, Flin Flon, The Pas and Swan River.
Born in Montréal, Dion was called to the Québec bar in 1980, and had served in various senior roles in the public service, including as associate deputy minister of justice, executive director and deputy head of the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution of Canada, and as chair of the National Parole Board before retiring last year.
Dion was named initially for six months as interim public sector integrity commissioner in December 2010 and last December was appointed to a full term. In accordance with the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, the appointment is for a maximum period of seven years.
The office itself has had its share of controversy prior to Dion’s appointment. The Conservatives' first seven-year appointee, Christiane Ouimet, appointed in April 2007, resigned unexpectedly in October 2010 less than halfway through her term before an investigation by the auditor general found she failed to perform her duties and was abusive to her staff. She was given a $530,000 severance package and agreed to not speak publicly about her time as commissioner.