Departing officials complain Commons clerk was partial to Liberals, fell asleep during question period

·12 min read
Five senior managers started filing complaints in 2018 claiming there were issues with the Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert's performance and treatment of staff.  (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Five senior managers started filing complaints in 2018 claiming there were issues with the Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert's performance and treatment of staff. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)

The House of Commons Clerk Charles Robert is being accused of acting in a partisan fashion that favours the Liberals along with other allegations that include sleeping in the chamber during question period and presiding over a disrespectful workplace, CBC News has learned.

A series of written complaints and letters to the Speaker viewed by CBC show that five senior managers who worked closely with Robert started raising concerns on behalf of their staff in 2018.

CBC News also spoke to 10 sources with knowledge of the inner workings of Robert's office who corroborated the complaints and provided additional examples.

Three of the senior managers who complained have taken sick leave and early retirement since last year including André Gagnon, the deputy clerk, who departed just this past summer. A fourth executive is now on sick leave.

According to the House of Commons website, Robert's job is to advise the Speaker and members of Parliament on parliamentary rules, precedents and practices "regardless of party affiliation" and "with impartiality and discretion."

But Colette Labrecque-Riel, the former clerk assistant and director general of international and inter-parliamentary affairs, wrote a letter to the Speaker about her departure in which she said she saw the clerk "speak and act in a clearly, or at the very least what could be reasonably perceived to be, partisan fashion."

"The Clerk of the House of Commons must be held to the highest standard in this regard," Labrecque-Riel wrote in her letter to Speaker Anthony Rota, a Liberal MP, on May 4, 2020.

"Real or perceived, breaching the principle of impartiality is not only egregious, but a grave betrayal of you, as Speaker, of parliamentarians and of all clerks."

Robert responded to a list of the allegations provided by CBC News saying that he has spent his career serving MPs and Senators from all parties.

"For more than 40 years, I have served Parliament and parliamentarians of both Houses with integrity and to the best of my ability," wrote Robert in a statement to CBC News.

"Prior to my appointment as Clerk of the House of Commons, I was for several years the interim Clerk of the Senate providing advice and counsel to three Speakers, Conservative and Liberal."

'Devalued, disrespected and unwelcome'

Labrecque-Riel wrote that she was taking early retirement after more than 30 years working at the House because she could not reconcile the "new values" with her own. She wrote the work environment in recent years had made her feel "devalued, disrespected and unwelcomed."

In Labreque-Riel's letter — which she did not share with CBC News — she wrote that Rota was aware of the issues already but urged him to do something for the sake of her colleagues and the institution.

CBC News obtained copies of multiple letters detailing complaints against Robert. The documents were sent to two Speakers of the House over the last three years — Rota and his predecessor, Liberal Geoff Regan.

The 10 sources CBC spoke to asked not to be named because they said they didn't want to jeopardize anyone's career.

Robert said following his appointment he made "significant changes" to try and improve support to members. He said those changes have shown high levels of engagement through the 2,400 employees, but some of the changes were "met with resistance."

"In this case, from a handful of senior managers within procedural services," he said.

An external review was conducted in 2018 into a series of claims about how he was running the office.

In a statement to CBC News Robert said the review "concluded that the bond of trust between Procedural Services executives and me was not present," adding that other claims about his ethics and integrity were "baseless."

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

The review did not investigate allegations of partisanship, which have arisen since then, sources said.

A spokesperson said the Speaker of the House of Commons "immediately" brought concerns he received to the attention of the Chief Human Resources officer to advise if any action was required.

Heather Bradley, director of communications for the Speaker's office, said the process was followed in this case.

Before the election, opposition House leaders and whips pushed for an external review into the departures during a confidential, in-camera Board of Internal Economy meeting in July, said sources. But the sources said the Liberals voted against it saying a review had already been conducted.

Claims of acting partisan

Among the most serious claims made by employees is that Robert behaved in a way that was not impartial.

A group of procedural staff regularly meet with Robert in the morning before the House sits to talk about what might happen and prepare to brief the Speaker. At this meeting they often discuss information the parties have shared in confidence.

During a meeting in the spring of 2019, Robert revealed that he had consulted with the Liberal Party about a ruling that was coming from the Speaker related to a question of privilege about a bill on medically assisted dying — a ruling that was not favourable to the government.

Honestly, I cannot continue to simply look the other way ... - Colette Labrecque-Riel

Multiple sources said Robert disclosed the outcome of the ruling to the Liberals and asked the party what the best time of day would be for the Speaker to deliver it so it would not disrupt the government's agenda of the day.

In order to remain nonpartisan, neither the clerk nor any member of the clerk's staff is permitted to reveal the outcome of a ruling ahead of time. It's also against normal practice to negotiate the timing of a ruling's release with just one party which could have given it a strategic advantage.

Lori Turnbull, director of the school of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, said broadly, that a clerk should feel loyal to the institution of Parliament and the rules and procedures it holds that require people to act in the public interest.

"As soon as the official feels more responsive to the government than to Parliament, then that person is compromised," said Turnbull.

Staff stopped sharing information with Robert

Sources who spoke to CBC News said some staff members, concerned about the risk of leaks to the Liberals, have stopped sharing information with Robert.

The sources said Robert regularly tells staff it's their job to make sure the government gets its business done.

Sources said that, in a speech to several hundred staff members at a retreat following the 2019 federal election that saw the Liberals win a minority government, Robert made a comment that made some employees' jaws drop. Sources said Robert said he was happy with the election results, because otherwise it could have been worse for him personally.

Multiple staff members complained that the comment suggested if the Conservatives had won they may have replaced him, said sources.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

One source defended Robert, saying Robert holds himself and the job as Clerk in high esteem and believes Robert would not act in a wrongful manner or partisan fashion.

Multiple sources question why the government considered Robert for the role when, at the time of his appointment, he was the interim clerk of the Senate and in a longtime relationship with a Liberal-appointed senator.

Robert said he disclosed his relationship at the time of his selection and appointment.

"...my personal relationship with a Senator was known on Parliament Hill and had been disclosed with Senate and House Speakers and several senior officials," wrote Robert.

Appointment process

Rather than promoting Marc Bosc, who was the acting clerk at the time, the Trudeau government departed from past practice of promoting from within and launched a competition.

Robert was selected because of his "vast knowledge of rules, procedures, practices and precedent" over 35 years of public service, the Prime Minister's Office said when it announced his appointment. Robert started his career in the House before going to work at the Senate in 1991.

Former clerk Robert Marleau publicly criticized the approach the government took to the nomination process, which included a four-person panel from the PMO, Privy Council Office and House leader's office, the Hill Times reported. Marleau said it was the first time in almost 40 years the government had acted unilaterally and argued the House should have more control of the appointments, the newspaper reported.

The PMO told CBC News it was an "open and merit based appointment process."

Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press
Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press

"Additionally, since 2005, all Clerks of the House of Commons have, prior to being appointed, been referred to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee and are ratified by a majority of the House of Commons," wrote PMO spokesperson Ann-Clara Vaillancourt in a statement to CBC News.

Then Green Party leader Elizabeth May and 78 Conservative MPs voted against the appointment.

A source said that when Robert started in his new job, he was aware that some didn't want him in the role. Some staff were shocked that Bosc didn't get the job, said the sources.

Bosc later retired in March 2018.

Robert has maintained that a handful of the executives were resisting change. He provided CBC with a copy of his CV detailing his decades of experience and published essays on procedural issues.

Allegations of sleeping on the job

The five senior managers wrote in their 2018 complaint that they were doing their "utmost to adjust" to Robert's management style, but complaints from staff were mounting and the situation had become "untenable."

"The amount of time and energy that is expended on stepping in to do the job of the Clerk and in discussion, including with staff, about how to keep going forward in this toxic environment is currently staggering and not sustainable," reads the complaint.

The complainants wrote that they witnessed Robert fall asleep in the chamber during Question Period "very regularly, in fact often daily." That time of the day is typically the most intense time of the day for the clerk. Multiple other sources also corroborated that this frequently happened and was seen by pages as well.

Robert's job is to stay alert and constantly monitor what goes on in the House so he's in a position to advise the Speaker if an issue arises. That includes watching to see if anyone crosses a line with a question or unparliamentary language. Multiple sources said others have had to step in to fill that role.

Radio-Canada
Radio-Canada

"Honestly, I cannot continue to simply look the other way," wrote Labrecque-Riel in a letter to the Speaker. "This would not be tolerated from other employees and, if there were a medical condition, it would be properly accommodated so that it does not persist."

The 2018 review mandated by then-Speaker Geoff Regan looked into the claims about Robert sleeping on the job, Robert confirmed.

"The 2018 report identified the situation with respect to instance of falling asleep in the Chamber and it has since been addressed," Robert wrote.

CBC News requested a copy of the report, but Robert said it contains "personal information and deals with employment matters, it cannot be made public."

Auditor walked away from job

The House shared a copy of an employee survey that shows in 2018 that 67 per cent of employees who participated felt the House is effectively managed and well run.

Robert's chief audit executive walked away from the job over a concern about a conflict of interest, multiple sources said. Audits are supposed to be the safety mechanism for offices and should have independence built into the process.

Robert severed the reporting structure, removing the ability of the auditor to take concerns directly to the Speaker. The Speaker chairs the Board of Internal Economy which is responsible for the oversight of the House Administration that Robert leads.

If the auditor ever found wrongdoing, the report would only go to Robert.

Claims of disrespectful workplace

Complaints also claim that Robert has treated some staff with disrespect.

Former clerk assistant Beverley Isles left the office in June 2020. She also wrote a letter to the Speaker saying she was leaving after more than 30 years because Robert sidelined her from her duties and routinely dismissed her in front of colleagues.

"It is these issues that resulted in my reducing my work week starting in March as per my doctor's instructions and concerns for my mental and physical health," Isles wrote to Speaker Rota. "It is these same issues which have prompted me to end my career at the House at this time."

CBC obtained a copy of the letter from a source other than Isles.

A letter of complaint sent to the Speaker in 2019 alleges that despite having raised concerns the "many existing issues remain unchanged, still leaving us in our unhealthy and disrespectful workplace."

The letter alleged Robert also tried to change several managers' performance records to say they lacked judgment after they reported issues about him to the Speaker. A senior manager pushed back saying that move would have been seen as retaliation and intimidation, the letter said.

Regan brought in an outside firm, Filion and Associates, to conduct an external review of the clerk's office, according to a letter. But a complainant wrote to the Speaker in Jan. 2019 and said the workplace assessment report had disappointing conclusions and contained "erroneous facts and suppositions."

Since then, there have been departures from the office and new complaints about partisanship and staff's treatment, according to letters to Speaker Rota.

The PMO said the "government takes workplace health and safety very seriously."

Opposition House leaders and whips called for new review

In June, Conservative and NDP MPs publicly asked for answers about the staff departures during a meeting of the Board of Internal Economy.

Conservative MP Blake Richards said he wanted to know if there were any internal issues causing such a "significant" and "unexpected turnover."

"They all strike me as pretty young despite their lengthy years of service," Richards told the Board of Internal Economy meeting on June 10. "Losing even one of them I think is a huge loss to this House, but to lose three of them is probably an immeasurable loss, frankly."

NDP House Leader Peter Julian also called it a "matter of concern."

Rota said he'd ask "the administration to come up with a report and find out if there's anything."

At the time, Rota already had received letters detailing the reasons for two of the departures from Isles and Labreque-Riel, but did not disclose that fact to MPs.

The spokesperson for the Speaker's office said since the matter was discussed in-camera, the Speaker can not disclose information about it. She said Rota is "deeply committed to the employees and to the workplace at the House Administration and takes his responsibilities in this regard very seriously."

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