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Ontario government lawyers being terrorized by ‘bully’ bosses, secret report reveals

21-02-2018

Former Ontario deputy attorney general Patrick Monahan, right, who oversaw the ministry during much of the time under scrutiny, and former assistant deputy attorney general Malliha Wilson, who left the ministry last year and did not return requests for comment.  (LAW FIRM NAV WILSON/OSGOODE HALL)

 

Ontario’s Liberal government has kept secret an explosive report that paints some of its most senior bureaucrats — male and female — as bullies who have harassed and discriminated against hundreds of provincial lawyers and administrative assistants for years.

 

The workplace for 600 government lawyers and several hundred administrative staff at the Ministry of the Attorney General is described as a “toxic” cesspool where fear and retribution rule the day, ironically at an Ontario agency branded with the logo “Better Justice Together.”

 

One high-ranking government boss is described by a complainant in the report as “a classic bully drunk on her own power.” Crown lawyers working under another executive said he created “an extremely unhealthy and intolerable environment.”

 

“Many employees work in an atmosphere of constant fear of retribution and a culture of silence prevails,” said report author Leslie Macleod, a lawyer and former senior Ontario bureaucrat. The report was concluded in the summer of 2017.

 

In addition to harassment allegations, the report notes that government lawyers are sometimes forced by senior managers to change their opinions on whether or not to lay charges against individuals or companies — apparently to satisfy the special interests of other provincial ministries.

 

Code names are used in the report, called “Turning the Ship Around,” to describe offending senior bureaucrats. Who they are, the province would not tell the Star.

 

Shortly after the Star published its story Attorney General Yasir Naqvi issued a statement saying, “Everyone has a right to feel safe and respected in their workplace. Harassment of any kind is completely unacceptable. That’s why the ministry decided to bring in an independent consultant to provide recommendations on how to improve the workplace culture.”

 

He said he expects “ministry officials will continue to take steps to address workplace issues to ensure all employees are respected.”

 

Neither Naqvi nor top bureaucrats would answer questions about specifics in the report.

 

The report was intended to be kept secret forever and it required some clandestine work to get a copy of the document. Each copy is stamped with a unique number across each page, and those who received a copy were warned leakers would be fired.

 

To get a sense of how concerned Ontario’s top government lawyers were about participating in Macleod’s investigation — which was sanctioned by the ministry — here is what she writes at the start of the report. “They feared that their immediate manager would sanction them. For this reason, employees often met with me during a lunch break or talked to me after hours. They insisted that their names and any identifying information not be shared.”

 

The language in the 115-page document is stark, many shades different than the grey government-report words that typically issue from Queen’s Park.

 

Highly paid Ontario government lawyers are “fearful” of their bosses. The situation is a “festering sore” that many in the highest echelons of government have ignored for years. Staff frequently felt threatened that some form of “retribution” would befall them if they spoke up.

 

The lengthy investigative document deals with problems at the Ministry of the Attorney General, a massive government agency that affects the lives of all Ontarians. The ministry employs a small army of lawyers who handle criminal and civil cases. It is the “civil law division” on which this report and its author focus. At this division, hundreds of lawyers work on matters as diverse as health, environment, business, human rights, transportation, labour, coroner’s inquests and many other issues. Lawyers and staff in the division prepare cases, prosecute some, mediate others, and provide advice to senior bureaucrats.

 

It’s an important job, dealing with the legal matters of Canada’s biggest province, and the civil law division is often thought of as the law firm that represents the province of Ontario. The report, within the first few pages, states that its author found “a deeply embedded dysfunctional culture” at the ministry.

 

Report author Macleod is a lawyer and mediator in private practice and a former Ontario assistant deputy attorney general. She told the Star she was not authorized to discuss the “confidential document.”

 

Macleod was called in to conduct the investigation in late 2016 after the issue “exploded” and complaints reached the desk of Steve Orsini, Ontario’s secretary of cabinet and the head of the Ontario public service. Previous complaints to senior attorney general’s officials were ignored, the report notes. Orsini does not comment on specific cases, a spokesperson told the Star.

 

For her report, Macleod interviewed 250 lawyers and administrative staff, which represents more than a quarter of the affected employees.

 

Her report does not give specifics, likely to protect the confidentiality of lawyers and other staff who spoke out. Instead, she groups her findings into different areas, and then makes recommendations for change. Sources have told the Star very few, if any, recommendations have been acted on although a ministry spokesperson said an “advisory committee” has been created.

 

The Macleod report describes a dire situation.

 

“The descriptions of inappropriate conduct that I heard through the consultations were alarming and the fact that it continued unabated for so long makes it doubly so,” Macleod writes.

 

“Allegations made during the consultations included various forms of belittling, gossip-mongering, bullying and a tendency to unduly punish employees,” the report states.

 

One senior, unnamed bureaucrat is singled out repeatedly in the report for negative behaviour. “Other descriptions (of the bureaucrat) alleged unpredictable, volatile, or vindictive behaviour.”

 

On the issue of complaints of racism, Macleod found all kinds. She said in some cases she heard complaints that the top brass preferred “old white guys” for certain cases. She also heard complaints that “racialized lawyers” were often given good jobs, but then once they arrived in the ministry they were treated by other lawyers as “less able than their white counterparts.” In other cases, lawyers were hired because of who they knew, not what they knew.

 

Macleod places the blame for the dysfunction squarely on attorney general management at the most senior level, and also with deputy ministers at other government ministries who regularly come in contact with the attorney general’s ministry.

 

“Deputy ministers (at other ministries) knew that the situation was a festering sore,” the report notes. In an effort to explain why lawyers at the ministry did not speak out sooner, Macleod cites a “near paralyzing degree of fear” that they would be forced out of their jobs for complaining.

 

“I have received accounts from many employees who have suffered personally and professionally as a result of inappropriate workplace conduct, many of whom still bear scars today.”

 

Her investigation noted a high level of turnover for lawyers at the ministry, due to the difficult working conditions. She also found turnover at the management level. In one case, a department had five legal directors in seven years.

 

The report notes bad behaviour at offices across the province, with the epicentre being 720 Bay St. in Toronto, the headquarters for the civil law department.

 

“Employees shared with me innumerable stories of people being regularly yelled at, sworn at, and belittled privately or in front of others,” the report states.

 

Fear of reprisals from senior management, who would move lawyers to another department if they spoke up and complained, kept the lid on the problem for years. “Fear permeated every level of the division” and “there was always the fear factor” that if a lawyer said no to something or reported anything negative it would have a damaging effect on his or her career.

 

Constant turnover, people forced out when they complained to upper management, has been the order of the day, with one complainant noting that top lawyers were “here one day and gone tomorrow.”

 

Her report is peppered with “Director Y” did this, “Director Z” did that, or “Senior Manager X” did this. Ministry lawyers have played a sort of black humour game, trying to put faces to the code names.

 

Many employees posed this question in their interviews: “How is it that so many people had their careers and lives damaged, and yet those who should have been held accountable did not?”

 

And then there is the issue of the law itself. Given the extreme dysfunction, is the work taxpayers are supporting getting done?

 

Macleod notes that she heard numerous complaints that bureaucrats “doctored” the legal opinions of skilled government lawyers but kept their names on the opinions. Also, complainants say they were ordered to give a certain opinion about the risk of taking an action just to please another government department or to respond to “political sensitivities.” At times, lawyers were told by bosses not to “put things in writing.”

 

Though no specifics are given, the report notes that other ministries who rely on the attorney general’s legal department were allowed to “exert improper influence” on the laying and withdrawing of charges. Macleod said she heard concerns that this “may be viewed as unlawful interference with Crown discretion and raise concerns of abuse of process by the Crown.”

 

In her report, Macleod pointed to top brass as the overall problem. “I was told that trust in management generally has drastically eroded and is now perilously low.” One issue is that over the years, effective lawyers were promoted through the ranks, but not given training on how to be a boss.

 

“You shouldn’t expect to be a lawyer one day and a manager the next” without appropriate training, the report notes.

 

A total of 136 recommendations on how to improve the situation at the attorney general’s ministry were made by Macleod, including that all employees should be told in writing that they will not be subject to reprisals if they raise issues about inappropriate conduct in the future.

 

A ministry spokesperson provided a general response to the Star, but would not deal with any specific issues raised in the report.

 

“The ministry takes its responsibilities towards its staff seriously and like most employers we are constantly working towards improvement,” the spokesperson wrote. More than 300 employees have volunteered to take part in “employee engagement” to “transform their own workplace,” the spokesperson said.

 

“Though much positive change has already taken place, we know that there is still more work to do. We are committed to continuing this drive toward collaborative and positive change. The Civil Law Division and its staff are working together to build a workplace community that is stronger, more inclusive, and where every employee feels welcome and valued,” said the spokesperson.

 

Sources within the ministry have told the Star that despite the words of the spokesperson, little has changed and outside help is required.

 

“Nothing of substance is being done in response to the report,” one source said. “The ministry should bring in an independent third party who understands the wide range of issues.”

 

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

https://www.thestar.com/news/investigations/2018/02/21/ontario-government-lawyers-being-terrorized-by-bully-bosses-secret-report-reveals.html