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Editorials

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Protect those who protect public good

Posted: 07/12/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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The Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters' fight against an ex-employee who disclosed information about how it spent federal flood-relief money illustrates why Manitoba needs better whistleblower protection.

In May, Ted Ducharme, a former MANFF community liaison officer responsible for helping evacuees of the flooded Lake St. Martin First Nation, distributed a dossier of invoices, pay stubs and other documents to the media and the federal government, which had already begun to investigate MANFF's use of the funds. The documents disclosed MANFF paid more than $1 million in an eight-month period to deliver catered evening snacks to hotel-resident evacuees.

Ottawa has now refused to reimburse the province for what it calls ineligible food costs. The federal government has removed MANFF from handling services for flood evacuees.

On Thursday, Ducharme gave the documents back to MANNF, to settle a court suit it launched over the release of confidential information.

Manitoba has a whistleblower-protection law called the Public Interest Disclosure Act. But it doesn't protect Ducharme. It should.

The law protects only public-sector employees. Originally, it applied only to provincial government departments, Crown corporations and external agencies. It was broadened to include a variety of organizations delivering public services, including universities, child-care centres and nursing homes.

MANFF, though it received substantial public funds to manage flood relief, is a private organization and technically not caught by the whistleblower legislation.

Manitoba's whistleblower law spells out an internal process for disclosure of gross mismanagement of public funds or assets. But it also sanctions immediate public disclosure in urgent cases where the employee has first delivered the evidence of wrongdoing to a law enforcement agency.

The law should be broadened to include, at the very least, private organizations that receive or manage substantial sums of public funds. MANFF wasn't spending its own funds, it was spending taxpayer dollars. It was acting in a fiduciary capacity, spending money for a public purpose and managing funds as a trustee of the public purse.

MANFF ought not to be allowed to raise its private-sector status as a shield against its alleged wrongdoings. And Ted Ducharme, if acting in good faith and in the public interest, shouldn't be marginalized and punished by the law, but rather protected by it.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2013 A10

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