Privacy report a ‘whitewash’: vets advocate

A veterans advocate has complained to the privacy watchdog about an internal report that largely exonerates federal bureaucrats who spread around his personal medical information.

OTTAWA — A veterans advocate has complained to the privacy watchdog about an internal report that largely exonerates federal bureaucrats who spread around his personal medical information.

The Veterans Affairs investigation into Sean Bruyea’s case has revived questions about how seriously the Harper government has treated breaches of privacy of ex-soldiers.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart concluded almost two years ago that the use of Bruyea’s medical information in two 2006 briefing notes to former veterans minister Greg Thompson broke the law.

However, an outside report commissioned by the department found no “malice” or “fault” in the actions of bureaucrats and senior department officials.

The report noted that Bruyea’s medical information was stitched into several other notes that were not part of the privacy commissioner’s investigation.

Bruyea, who described the report as a whitewash, says his privacy was violated once again because the consultant had full access to the briefings.

He says no one from Amprax Inc., headed by a former senior bureaucrat Alain Jolicoeur, contacted him for either permission to view the material or for input into the report.

“I certainly . . . never would authorize an individual like Mr. Jolicoeur who has an extensive background as a senior bureaucrat which places him in a conflict of interest in assessing whether his peers broke the law,” Bruyea said in his letter to the privacy commissioner.

“In authorizing this investigation and releasing unprecedented large amounts of my personal information to Mr. Jolicoeur, it is apparent that senior officials grossly and flagrantly broke privacy laws in order to solicit a report which would justify their breaking of those same laws in the first place. (Veterans Affairs) has crudely attempted but failed to justify the unjustifiable.”

A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said the government used the privacy commissioner’s report as its guide in strengthening protections around the handling of personal information.

“Minister Blaney does not agree with the Jolicoeur (Amprax) report,” said Codi Taylor in an email statement. “Our government accepted the recommendations of the privacy commissioner and took immediate action.”

It’s unclear why the report was commissioned in the first place. Taylor also didn’t address the issue of Bruyea’s latest complaint to the privacy watchdog, which was filed Monday. The complaint needs to be reviewed before a decision whether to launch a formal investigation.

The Amprax report, presented to former veterans minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn in December 2010, said some bureaucrats involved in mishandling the information had retired.

“But even if they were still in the system, it would not be a question of discipline. It would be a question of performance. Performance pay is the tool to deal with those situations, not discipline.”

Bruyea noted some of the bureaucrats were among dozens who received nearly $700,000 in performance bonuses in 2011, instead of being punished.

A copy of the Amprax report was obtained by The Canadian Press after a long delay that was resolved only with the intervention of Canada’s information commissioner.

NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer said the contradiction between what the Harper government has said publicly about privacy and the advice it received internally is cause for further investigation.

“More than ever, there needs to be some kind of judicial review,” Stoffer said Monday. “That’s the only thing I think will satisfy the veterans community now.”

He dismissed the Amprax findings, noting the federal government settled a lawsuit out-of-court with Bruyea.

“If nothing was wrong, why did they settle?” Stoffer asked.

Since Bruyea’s case came to light in September 2010, other ex-soldiers, notably Harold Leduc who sits on a federal veterans review panel, have stepped forward to claim their private medical information was used to smear them as well.

A veterans group said a judicial review was the only solution because it’s clear the bureaucracy intended to either discredit or blunt the criticism of the privacy commissioner.

“There’s more here than a simply privacy breach,” said Mike Lairs, of Veterans Advocacy.

“We’re in a time of austerity. When an organization that has been sanctioned has the right to spend taxpayers on a private company to what? To exonerate themselves? The privacy commissioner came out with a definitive judgment and her word is now being questioned.”

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