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‘Bully’ bosses issue ‘swept under the carpet’ until junior government lawyer sent email

22-02-2018

Former assistant deputy attorney general Malliha Wilson left the ministry last year and did not return six requests for comment from the Star.  (LAW FIRM NAV WILSON)

 

A junior lawyer’s decision to speak out — with an email copied to dozens of government lawyers — about an allegedly “abusive” boss at Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General caused Queen’s Park to finally take notice of historic problems that were later called a “festering” sore in a government report.

 

“I write to express my profound disappointment and deep sense of shame in the organization I work for under your leadership,” the young lawyer wrote in November 2016 to then-deputy attorney general Patrick Monahan.

 

Seeking maximum impact, the junior lawyer copied her two-page letter of complaint to the executive management group and dozens of rank and file lawyers at the attorney general’s ministry. She was responding to Monahan’s glowing description in a staff email of Malliha Wilson, his assistant deputy attorney general who had just received a lateral posting to another part of the Ontario public service.

 

“Your memo is particularly distressing given that you and other senior leadership in government . . . are fully aware of this pattern of behaviour,” the junior lawyer wrote. “Yet you chose to sweep all of this under the carpet.”

 

Wednesday, the Star reported on a secret government report into the behaviour of “bully” bosses at the ministry. In short, report author Leslie Macleod found that the workplace at the Civil Law Division is a “toxic” cesspool where senior bureaucrats — male and female — bully, harass and discriminate against hundreds of lawyers and administrative assistants.

 

In response to the story, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi told reporters at Queen’s Park that he had previously been briefed about the situation, the report and how there “are some challenges by the officials.”

 

“Now that the report is there I know that the ministry is taking the responsibility very seriously and working hard to implement the recommendations of the report.”

 

Neither Naqvi nor senior ministry bureaucrats would answer specific questions by the Star. Naqvi said secrecy around the report (it was never released publicly) existed to protect employees, although no specific examples of complaints are in the completed document. “Over 250 people were interviewed. They came forward and discussed their perspective and their opinions on the basis of confidentiality because they did not want any negative repercussions towards their careers and the work they do,” Naqvi said.

 

The Star has attempted numerous times to reach former assistant deputy attorney general Wilson, now in private practice. The Star has also sought comment from former deputy attorney general Monahan, but he was recently appointed to a judgeship and a spokesperson said he would not be commenting. “It is not appropriate for Judges of the Superior Court of Justice to discuss such matters in the media,” said spokesperson Norine Nathanson.

 

Wilson, who was assistant deputy attorney general from 2008 to 2016, was transferred to the Investment Management Corporation of Ontario in November 2016, stayed for one year and recently formed her own law firm.

 

Here is what sparked the report into her conduct and that of dozens of other senior managers at the ministry, which is generally thought of as the “law firm for Ontario,” according to people who work at the ministry.

 

Sources within the ministry say that for several years government lawyers were complaining to Monahan and others about bully bosses, including Wilson. Nothing substantive was done. Among the complaints were allegations that senior management frequently ordered lawyers to change their well-researched legal opinions, sometimes for political reasons.

 

In the summer of 2016 a group of senior lawyers who reported to Wilson and Monahan contacted Steve Orsini, the secretary of cabinet in Ontario who serves as the province’s top civil servant. Orsini stepped in and Monahan was told to look into the allegations against his assistant deputy (Wilson). A “survey” was done, apparently without Wilson’s knowledge, and it confirmed at least some of the allegations. A decision was made to move Wilson out of the attorney general’s ministry to another government posting with similar salary.

 

On Nov. 18, 2016, Monahan wrote a glowing memo about Wilson’s years of service, saying “our colleague Malliha Wilson has decided to pursue an exciting new opportunity” at the Investment Management Corporation of Ontario. The six-paragraph note lauded her for many accomplishments, including “breaking down silos and co-ordinating the delivery of legal services.” Finally, Monahan wrote, “I want to personally acknowledge the extremely valuable support Malliha has provided me during my time as deputy . . . her departure will be a loss for (the ministry).

 

That went out on a Friday. The following Monday afternoon, a junior lawyer who had worked for Wilson wrote a strongly worded note to Monahan, and copied others in the ministry.

 

“In my view, your memorandum illustrates a lack of sensitivity to, or basic understanding of, the experiences of the many people who served or have served under you. At the very least, it has raised deep cynicism about the possibility that, despite the clear evidence of (assistant deputy attorney general) Wilson’s long history of abusive behaviour, senior leadership might subscribe to the views expressed in the memo.”

 

The Star has been unable to reach the junior lawyer and is not publishing her name at this time.

 

The junior lawyer wrote in her note, sent to some of the highest-ranked civil servants in Ontario, that Monahan’s laudatory memo “serves to minimize and silence those of us who were subject to her abusive behaviour and it re-subjects us to the humiliation and cruelty that characterized her relationships with so many of the people that worked for her.”

 

The junior lawyer said that after observing poor treatment of many others by Wilson she finally “walked out” of Wilson’s office “after suffering a particularly abusive attack.”

 

In her note she writes of numerous times when she was “proud to work as a public servant” at the ministry. “But today I am ashamed of the institution I work for.” She said it would have been better if Monahan had written a simple, neutral note announcing Wilson’s departure. She called on Monahan to show “strong leadership and a commitment to integrity and honesty.”

 

By January 2017, Monahan and other senior leaders in the provincial government had hired Macleod, a former public servant, to conduct an in-depth investigation into allegations of harassment, threatening and verbal abuse at the ministry. Among her conclusions after a six-month probe were that “many employees work in an atmosphere of constant fear of retribution and a culture of silence prevails.”

 

Irwin Glasberg was brought in to take over from Wilson on an interim basis after she moved to another government department. Monahan became a judge, and a new deputy appointed to replace him in early 2018 (Paul Boniferro, previously a lawyer in private practice at McCarthy Tetrault).

 

Macleod’s report, concluded in July 2017, has remained under wraps. It was shared with lawyers in the ministry, but they were all warned not to distribute it. She made more than 100 recommendations but the ministry will not say which are being implemented. The report is called “Turning the Ship Around.” Thursday, the Star was contacted by five current ministry lawyers who said they continue to have the same concerns about the ministry as they did two years ago.

 

Kevin Donovan can be reached at 416-312-3503 or kdonovan@thestar.ca

 

https://www.thestar.com/news/investigations/2018/02/22/bully-bosses-issue-swept-under-the-carpet-until-junior-government-lawyer-sent-email.html