OTTAWA — A Senate committee is exploring compensation for employees who raised allegations of harassment and sexual abuse against former senator Don Meredith, HuffPost Canada has learned. But victims are frustrated there seems to be no end to an inquiry process which has taken four years so far.
“I just feel like I’ve been shot right in the heart,” said a former Meredith employee. She spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing professional and personal concerns. “I feel like the old boys’ club thing is still ruling this place more than ever,” she said, of the Senate.
The standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration is now tasked with considering what to do next after an ethics committee report released in July recommended no remedial measures or sanctions be taken for actions that, according to the Senate ethics watchdog, “no doubt” constituted harassment and sexual harassment.
“We trusted the system, we trusted their intentions to do this right,” the former employee told HuffPost. She’s concerned that the lengthy process, which began in 2015, will discourage other staffers from ever coming forward.
“That #MeToo wave, it’s gone. It disappeared,” she said.
WATCH: Sexual assault and misconduct compensation in #MeToo era. Story continues below.
Another former employee who worked in Meredith’s office, said she’s “frustrated” by the Senate’s handling of the workplace-related allegations. She said she’s thinking a lot about her colleague, mentioned above, who experienced sexual harassment at the hands of a sitting senator, while the internal economy committee mulls its next steps.
“If I was [her] right now, I would feel really disheartened and I would feel like the writing’s on the wall to get screwed over once again.”
The internal economy and ethics committees are two Senate bodies allowed to sit during an election period. All other committees dissolve as soon as an election is called.
Independent Sen. Josée Verner, who sits on the internal economy group, said the process has dragged on too long and it’s time to make amends with former employees. She wants to invite them to speak at a hearing to tell senators about what they experienced during the process.
“I think we need to apologize and compensate the victims,” Verner said. “We need to hear them.”
The internal economy committee has scheduled its next meeting for Sept. 5.
The Senate does not publicly disclose how much it spends on pending litigation or out-of-court settlements with former employees. But financial statements indicate $678,833 was paid in “benefits” under this category in the last financial year. That number is more than double the $337,399 dispersed in the previous year.
It’s hard to determine how much public money the Senate spends in out-of-court settlements. Multiple sources told HuffPost that sometimes out-of-court settlement money is paid to lawyers who invoice the amount as “legal fees.” The money is then paid to the complainant(s).
Public finance records show the Senate spent $5,000 to settle a claim “related to grievance” in 2017-2018.
A spokesperson for Sen. Sabi Marwah, chair of the Senate’s internal economy, budgets and administration committee, said the $678,833 amount doesn’t include settlements made by the Senate in relation to litigation or in out-of-court cases. Asked for an itemized list for the employee severance benefits paid, HuffPost was told “an itemized list for benefits is not available.”
Early flags did not turn into official complaints
Problems inside Meredith’s office were flagged to human resources as early as 2013, four years before the Pentecostal minister resigned in disgrace in the wake of revelations that he pursued a sexual relationship with a teenager. HuffPost Canada reported allegations of workplace harassment in the Senate in 2017.
Those early flags didn’t turn into official complaints. The former employee who said she feels as if she’s been “shot right in the heart” explained to HuffPost in 2017 that a sense of “terror” prevented her from filing a formal complaint. The ethics watchdog interviewed the same woman.
“She was given the option of filing a formal complaint under the existing Senate policy on harassment but explained that she was afraid of reprisals, including being terminated,” according to the ethics watchdog’s much-anticipated report released at the end of June. “She said that she did not feel that the Policy was robust enough to protect her.”
The woman is one of six former employees who participated in the Senate ethics watchdog’s inquiry. Others who worked with Meredith, but not in his office, also testified about experiencing “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.”
Staff also alleged they experienced “yelling and screaming, bullying, threats and/or intimidating conduct” by the former senator.
“She said that she did not feel that the Policy was robust enough to protect her.”
A Senate constable who worked on Parliament Hill told the watchdog that there were two incidents where Meredith came up and kissed her on the cheek in front of other officers while she was posted at the front doors of Centre Block.
In another incident, she said Meredith looked at her “from head to toe and back up again” and then said, “you’re looking awfully fine today.”
Altogether, 14 people were interviewed, including one Conservative senator. Meredith was a member of the Conservative caucus at the time of the allegations.
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Meredith’s behaviour led people to quit his office. When former Senate speaker Pierre Claude Nolin noticed the high turnover he ordered an outside investigator, according to the Canadian Press, to look into what was happening behind closed doors.
That initial investigation, the “Report of Evidence Relating to the Workplace in the Office of Senator Don Meredith,” was commissioned by the Senate’s secretive internal economy committee.
Nolin died before the report was finished. Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos was appointed speaker and also became chair of the Senate’s internal economy committee. He told HuffPost that the evidence contained in the report about the goings-on inside Meredith’s office compelled him to bring it to the Senate ethics officer (SEO).
The contents of the publicly funded report have never been made public. Despite repeated requests for copies of the report, the victims who participated in the investigation never received full or redacted versions, or even copies of sections containing their own statements.
A day after the probe was tabled in committee, Housakos brought it to the attention of the Senate ethics office, which eventually began an inquiry. But the watchdog soon found it was hamstrung by senators.
“Although I have a copy of [the report] and have examined it thoroughly, my predecessor had been instructed by the [internal economy committee] on January 26, 2016 that this document formed part of in camera proceedings, is protected by parliamentary privilege and any unauthorized disclosure could be treated as a breach of privilege,” Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault wrote in his office’s latest report. “As such, I am not permitted to disclose its contents.”
Basically, the Senate ethics watchdog had ask the victims to repeat hours of testimony.
Parliamentary privilege forced victims to “start all over again” and go through “hurtful memories again,” said the woman who spoke to HuffPost, so their experiences could be included as evidence in a public report.
WATCH: Andrew Scheer says Tories have ‘zero tolerance’ on harassment. Story continues below.
Housakos, the former chair of internal economy, said he doesn’t think the ethics watchdog “would have been able to do his job at all if it wasn’t for that independent report” because the victims didn’t file an official complaint.
“The only reason the report, we asked the SEO to keep it confidential, is because the victims made that request. And we went to an unprecedented process, which myself and speaker Nolin put into place, to protect their privacy at their request. That’s the bottom line.”
Without a formal complaint, the Senate’s ethics body cannot investigate.
When the inquiry was underway, Housakos sent the Senate Ethics Office a letter, on behalf of the committee, advising that publishing any evidence from the workplace assessment “could be treated as a breach of parliamentary privilege.” This led to “significant” delays, according to Legault.
Another reason for the delay was due to Legault lodging a complaint with the Ottawa police in November 2017 after discovering, what he believed to be, reasonable grounds that Meredith “may have committed an offence under the Criminal Code.”
Ottawa police asked Legault to suspend his inquiry while they investigated the case. It remained so for four months.
The former female employee, who was the victim in the case, told HuffPost that the Senate ethics officer gave her name to police without her knowledge. She said she mulled pursuing criminal charges but ultimately decided it would be better for the watchdog to complete his inquiry, a process that involved her former colleagues.
New details of ‘toxic environment’ revealed in report
Her experience is detailed in the Senate ethics officer’s report, which contained new information about the “toxic environment” Meredith allegedly fostered in his office.
Employees testified to they experienced stress-induced breakdowns and panic attacks. The former employee who spoke to HuffPost told the Senate watchdog that Meredith would call her into the office kitchen and begin “touching me, kissing me, putting his hands under my skirt.”
Under Senate rules, the institution is the employer and each senator is considered to be the manager of their own office.
Another incident occurred after she delivered papers to the former senator’s hotel room in late 2013. She said Meredith greeted her at the door shirtless, ushered her inside, laid himself on the bed and “took out his genitals and he just started kissing me.” She left.
“I quickly understood that I was stuck because I didn’t have any other job for sure,” she told the Senate ethics office in the report. “So, if I wanted to feed my kids and pay my mortgage and just hope to one day have another position, well, that was part of the deal.” The power dynamic made her feel trapped.
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In his June report, the Senate ethics officer also pointed the finger at some members of the red chamber, whom he wanted to interview, for contributing to “significant” and “unnecessary” delays.
“I could not interview them as part of this inquiry due to claims of parliamentary privilege,” he wrote.
Parliamentary privilege is a set of immunities enjoyed by members of the House of Commons and Senate. It is intended to, as a discussion paper describes, “enable Parliament to function effectively and efficiently without undue impediment.”
The ethics watchdog said he also encountered problems getting timely access to documents, which slowed his investigation. A “further complicating factor,” Legault wrote, was that each request for information from Senate administration required the approval from the internal economy committee.
“This caused a number of unnecessary delays in this inquiry but it also raised issues concerning the independence of the Senate ethics officer in relation to the Senate,” he flagged.
Senate spokeswoman Alison Korn told HuffPost that the institution appreciates the concerns raised by the Senate watchdog and ethics committee about delays encountered in the inquiry.
“We want to reiterate that while [the committee on internal economy, budgets and administration] always co-operates with the SEO during an investigation, there are rules and protocols in place that must be followed at all times,” she said, in an email.
“We cannot circumvent those rules and procedures in the sole interest of expediency.”
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Sources told HuffPost that concerns raised in the Senate ethics watchdog prompted Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain, a member of the internal economy, to request a summer meeting but the chair, Sen. Sabi Marwah, did not respond for two weeks.
“The different interpretations of what is allowed under parliamentary privilege vary widely it seems,” said Sen. Marilou McPhedran. The Manitoba senator has been outspoken about the slow pace of the ethics watchdog’s inquiry and its impact on the victims who came forward.
“How is it that some senators believe that their parliamentary privileges override the rights of victimized staff?” she asked.
Independent Sen. Josée Verner told HuffPost she is infuriated about how victims have been treated after coming forward with allegations of workplace harassment and sexual abuse.
The Quebec senator said it’s “nonsense” that the senate ethics officer was asked to conduct an inquiry based on a report he couldn’t use. She said she had no idea that internal economy, a committee that she sits on, “invoked parliamentary privilege in several instances” until Legault’s report spelled it out.
“It’s a really sad and embarrassing story.”
“Legault was asked to conduct an inquiry based on a report which he could not use. I mean, someone has to explain to me this,” Verner said. She wants the original workplace assessment made public, with the victims’ names and possible identifiers blacked out.
The former Harper-era Status of Women minister said four years is too long for an inquiry into workplace harassment allegations. (The process has been six years for victims since they gave notice to human resources in 2013 about issues prior to their participation in the workplace assessment). Up until his resignation, Meredith “was allowed to hire people in his office,” she said. “In that kind of case, you cannot have that kind of delay.”
Verner said wants her colleagues to apologize to the victims, and to reconvene for a on-camera, public meeting to get explanations from those responsible at the time for how victims had to wait four years for a report to come out.
“It’s a really sad and embarrassing story. As a woman, I feel really sad,” she said. “It’s just embarrassing.”
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of the story stated it’s been six years since victims’ participated in a workplace assessment. The inquiry process took four years. According to documents obtained by HuffPost, it’s been six years since issues in Meredith’s office were flagged to human resources 2013. This version has been updated.