Joanna Gualtieri

Joanna Gualtieri

What Happened

After blowing the whistle on alleged excessive costs for Canadian diplomats and staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs during the early 1990s, Joanna Gualtieri claimed that she was harassed, ostracized by her bosses and given a dead-end job. Gualtieri sued for harassment, in a case lasting 12 years. She eventually settled quietly out of court with DFAIT. Though Gualtieri’s allegations were supported by the Inspector General and the Auditor General of Canada, the Canadian government took steps to prevent other people from blowing the whistle as she did.

Joanna Gualtieri began working as a Realty Strategist at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) in February 1992.

Later that year, Gualtieri claimed she discovered large amounts of taxpayer money being wasted. Many of the rules regulating foreign property had been side-stepped or ignored.

Her allegations about the waste of public money included:

  • A Canadian government-owned mansion in Tokyo worth $18 million, left empty for over three years, while the intended occupant was provided with approximately $350,000 every year to rent an apartment of his choosing.
  • Millions of dollars of Government-owned land, office space, official residences, staff quarters and other facilities were underused, underdeveloped and/or left vacant in Ankara (Turkey), Barbados, Brussels, The Hague, Copenhagen, Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Tokyo.
  • In Tokyo, a luxurious new embassy was built on government land worth billions of dollars, without fully disclosing the real cost to Canadian taxpayers or Cabinet.
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs authorized unnecessary construction, renovations and decorations of overseas properties, such as the Costa Rica Chancery, the Sao Paulo Chancery, the Port of Spain Chancery, and the Mexico City Trade Center.
  • Seven million dollars towards a permanent Canadian trade center in Mexico City was squandered when the Center was closed only a few months after opening. Canada also had to pay a lease penalty of about $600,000.
  • Foreign Service Officers were housed in staff quarters in violation of the Treasury Board Regulations in relation to size and the Department’s rule on “comparability.” This occurred in Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Kingston (Jamaica), Mexico City, and Guatemala City.
  • Despite directions from the Department, residences in Copenhagen, Oslo, Brasilia, Brussels and Dublin remained unsold. The move was supposed to bring in millions of dollars to Canada.

When a high-ranking Canadian official in Tokyo learned of Gualtieri’s allegations, he allegedly told her not to interfere with “how things are done.”

Gualtieri blows the whistle and pays a price

Gualtieri filed reports in the fall of 1992 to her supervisors, alleging the Department of Foreign Affairs was spending extravagant amounts of taxpayer’s money on accommodations for Canadian diplomats abroad.

Her superiors ignored her concerns, warned her not to use words like “lavish” in her reports, prevented her from doing her job and told her who she could and could not speak to. She claims that she became the target of repeated and unjustified criticisms, public humiliation, stonewalling and nay-saying over her concerns. Actions were taken to undermine her authority and position, and she was presented with threats and insinuations that prevented her from doing her job.

Gualtieri claims her DFAIT bosses:

  • ridiculed her concern for probity about public funds;
  • stopped her from putting into place cost-saving measures;
  • prevented her from travelling to the Canadian missions for which she was responsible;
  • instructed her not to complete a trip report, and then faced accusations of incompetence for not having submitted the report;
  • denied her new work assignments;
  • subjected her to arbitrary, false and misleading changes and omissions made to her reports, thereby preventing a paper trail that would be subject to the access to information act;
  • had her name removed from the Department’s phone directory, and her nameplate was taken off her door.

In 1995, three years after filing her first reports about spending, Joanna Gualtieri was assigned to a new position with no official title or job. She was not allowed to attend important meetings and was not updated regarding the projects she was supposed to be following.

In November 1997, Gualtieri wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of her findings. But the response came instead from the Department of Justice, claiming her accusations had no merit, and threatening her with a lawsuit if she did not retract her comments.

Medical consequences

In May 1996, due to the alleged stress from harassment in her workplace and on the advice of her doctor, Gualtieri left on unpaid medical leave. In December 1997, she returned to work briefly, but left again on medical leave in June of 1998. She remains on leave.

Gualtieri sues

In 1998, Gualtieri launched a harassment lawsuit against her superiors at DFAIT as well as Liberal government ministers for $5 million in damages and $1 million in punitive costs. She also sought $30 million to set up a fund for the protection of whistleblowers.

In early 2001, an Ontario judge ruled that public servants are not allowed to sue the federal government. The court ordered Gualtieri to pay $80,000 for the government’s legal costs.

Gualtieri appealed this ruling, and the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed the decision thus permitting the trial to proceed.

Government enacts legislation

It was not until 2005, through the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, that the federal government enacted any meaningful legislative protection for whistleblowers.

But the new law created a distinct complaint and administrative scheme that strips public servants’ right to sue their employers. Consequently, it is now difficult for public service employees to hold their bosses accountable publicly.

Government’s ‘marathon questioning’ fails

As Gualtieri’s case continued between 2004 and 2007, government lawyers used the pre-trial discovery process to exhaust and harass Gualtieri. Court documents disclose that government lawyers asked more than 10,000 questions, even though she was undergoing a high-risk pregnancy. The questions were described as “repetitive, argumentative, picayune or irrelevant," by Ms. Gualtieri's lawyer. In February 2008, ten years after the case began, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the questioning constituted an abuse of the discovery process.

In March 2010, the government settled with Gualtieri. The agreement includes a gag order that prevents Gualtieri from speaking publicly about the details of the case.

Relevant Dates:

  • February 1992: Gualtieri starts work for the Department of Foreign Affairs as a Realty Strategist.
  • 1992-1995: After raising concerns about wasted taxpayer money, Gualtieri is criticized, humiliated, stonewalled and undermined. She is assigned to a position without a title.
  • April 1998: Gualtieri goes on medical leave on the recommendation of her doctor at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
  • 1998: Gualtieri files a harassment lawsuit against her former bosses for $30 million and founds the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR).
  • 2000-2002: An Ontario court dismisses Gualtieri’s lawsuit and orders her to pay the government’s legal costs of $80,000. But the Ontario Court of Appeal reverses and allows Gualtieri’s case to continue.
  • 2004-2007: Gualtieri is asked 10,579 questions by government lawyers in discovery, a process that an Ontario judge rules an abuse of process, causing delays and escalating costs.
  • April 2010: After 12 years of legal struggles, Foreign Affairs settles the case with Gualtieri. The terms of the settlement are confidential and unavailable to public and the Canadian taxpayer.

Role or Position

Joanna Gualtieri, a lawyer and former property developer, worked as Realty Portfolio Manager for the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). She was responsible for managing part of the approximately $2.5 billion in Canadian government properties around the world. Part of her job was to ensure that these properties were run in a cost-effective way. 

Implications and Consequences

  • Transparency: The Liberal government’s refusal to come clean about excessive spending on foreign embassies and residences and the Conservative government’s insistence on hiding the terms of its settlement with Gualtieri from Canadian taxpayers, are failures of the Canadian government’s responsibility to remain transparent.
  • Free Speech: The attacks on Gualtieri by employees of the government for raising concerns about waste constitute an attack on her right to free expression, namely to raise her voice in dissent against abuse of public funds, and to advocate better policies. Gualtieri, like all public servants, has an obligation of loyalty to her employers, but  this is balanced by the right to free expression. Gualtieri’s mistreatment is a case study showing why we must advocate the right of every Canadian to express dissent without fear of retribution and reprisal.
  • Democracy: No government can claim to represent the people when it not only abuses taxpayer money, but attempts to hide such abuse by mistreating civil servants who raise their concerns. While confidentiality concerns often underpin gag orders in settlement of this nature, the public nature of the issues at stake should militate in favour of disclosure in government.
  • Government Integrity: Successive governments have attempted to cover up evidence of waste and extravagance rather than dealing with the problem. Successive governments allowed a costly and punitive legal ‘defence’ to be continued against Gualtieri. Successive governments have also failed to deliver on campaign promises to protect whistleblowers effectively, first by blocking legislation under the Chretien liberals and then by passing flawed legislation under the Harper Conservatives. 

Date published: 15 November 2012

Photo from FAIR.