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Ombudsman: Public Service Commission Gamed Work Contracts

OTTAWA - A federal agency that's supposed to safeguard transparency and openness in government hiring practices cooked four of its own employment contracts to make sure favoured workers got hired.

That's the conclusion of the watchdog over the federal contracting process, who determined the Public Service Commission of Canada also failed to properly document its flawed decision-making.

The case involved four people who were hired without a competition to serve as external members of the commission's independent audit advisory committee.

The four sole-source contract jobs, potentially worth about $80,000 each over four years, were posted on a contracting website in September 2009. Other potential suppliers had just 15 days to object.

The notice said there would be no competition for the jobs because "only one person is capable of performing the work" -- even though the four job descriptions were identical.

The job applicants had each been given at least two previous contracts at the Public Service Commission.

The job announcement drew the ire of Canadians for Accountability, an Ottawa-based group that fights for government transparency.

The group filed a formal complaint in March last year with the procurement ombudsman, an office created by the Harper government under the Federal Accountability Act to root out corrupt or unethical practices.

The non-profit Canadians for Accountability was co-founded in 2008 by Allan Cutler, a former federal public servant and whistleblower in the sponsorship scandal, whose career was damaged for speaking out. He later ran for the Tories in a federal election and lost.

In a scathing report Monday, procurement ombudsman Frank Brunetta found that the four favoured workers were allowed to review the draft work requirements to ensure they were a perfect match to the job description.

The commission "favoured existing contractors by tailoring requirements, all of which limited fair and open competition for other potential suppliers," Brunetta ruled.

There was "no evidence of 'unique expertise' ... and no evidence that any one ... was the only person capable of performing the contract."

Indeed, Brunetta's investigation showed that the commission had actually identified six potential hires and "knew there was more than one supplier who could do the job."

Cutler welcomed Monday's findings but said the 16-month investigation took far too long. He also suggested it's just the tip of the iceberg.

"This is pretty rampant," he said in an interview. "I think there is a lot of disregard for proper procedure."

Between a quarter and a half of the sole-source contracts posted online are suspicious, Cutler added.

The Public Service Commission told investigators the four contracts were not renewed when they expired last November.

Brunetta's predecessor in the job, Shahid Minto, reported in 2009 that the government's system of posting sole-source contracts is a "problem child," open to abuse.

The system requires that a proposed sole-source contract be posted publicly for a short period to determine whether other suppliers are available to do the work.

But the posting period is often too short to invite real competition, and government departments often do not do the required research to demonstrate that no other suppliers are qualified.

There was no immediate comment from the Public Service Commission.

But spokeswoman Annie Trepanier said last year that no rules were broken in the four sole-source contracts and that it was "common practice" to allow proposed suppliers to see job requirements in draft form.

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