Integrity watchdog won’t end misconduct probe despite demand from Ottawa councillor’s lawyers

College Ward Coun. Rick Chiarelli is pictured at the city council table on Nov. 6, 2019. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

The City of Ottawa’s integrity commissioner told city council on Wednesday that he intends to keep investigating misconduct complaints filed against Coun. Rick Chiarelli, despite a fresh letter from the embattled councillor’s lawyers asking him to cease and desist.

That Tuesday letter — addressed to city councillors and Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau — argues that the investigative processes launched against Chiarelli have been “irreparably damaged” by “an overwhelming demonstration of patent and palpable bias” by Mayor Jim Watson and other members of council.

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Because council has the power to recommend any penalties based on the integrity commissioner’s findings, Marleau’s investigations into Chiarelli’s conduct should be “stayed and/or terminated,” argued the letter, signed by employment and labour lawyer D. Bruce Sevigny.

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“In my view, most of those matters raised are beyond my jurisdiction,” Marleau told city council on Wednesday.

“I have a statutory mandate to investigate and I will continue to investigate.”

CBC News in September first reported allegations by several women who claimed Chiarelli had made remarks or requests of a sexual nature, either during job interviews or when they worked in his office — allegations the longtime councillor for College Ward has categorically denied.

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CBC also reported that some of those women had filed complaints with Marleau’s office, something the integrity commissioner declined to confirm publicly until Feb. 7, when he released an interim report on his investigations ahead of city council’s meeting.

The report confirmed he was probing “several” complaints that Chiarelli had “contravened various sections of the Code of Conduct for Members of Council” but that his investigations have been delayed while the councillor recovers from open-heart surgery he underwent mid-December.

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Council officially received Marleau’s interim report on Wednesday.

The letter from Chiarelli’s lawyers singled out Watson and other councillors who have called for the embattled councillor’s resignation or “defiantly stood in protest” of him.

“… At this point, Councillor Chiarelli can have no confidence in council’s ability to objectively decide on any matter that is presently before the integrity commissioner,” the letter argued.

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The mayor told reporters he disagrees with the letter’s demand that Marleau abandon his investigation.

“My view has always been that the integrity commissioner has the legal authority to investigate these kinds of serious allegations against an individual member of council. I fully support that,” the mayor responded Wednesday.

“I’ve always said, I encourage the councillor … [to] go and speak to the integrity commissioner, because I think we need to have his side of the story, as we saw from commissioner Marleau. So far, he has not been able to receive any feedback from Mr. Chiarelli.
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“And I think we have to think about those individuals who came forward, bravely, with some very serious and degrading allegations. The process should continue, they should be investigated. Absolutely.”

Timeline of commissioner’s probe

Marleau told council he won’t specify how many complaints he received or is investigating because he is bound by a “duty of confidentiality.”

But he confirmed in his interim report that the complaints against Chiarelli were filed between Sept. 6 and Oct. 8. He reviewed them and decided they were worth investigating.

“I was not of the opinion that any matter set out in the complaints was frivolous, vexatious or not made in good faith, or that there were no grounds or insufficient grounds for an investigation,” Marleau wrote.

The commissioner provided Chiarelli with a copy of each complaint between Sept. 17 and Oct. 15 and asked him to provide a written response to the allegations made in each of them within 10 business days, according to Marleau’s interim report.

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Chiarelli “took the position” that Marleau didn’t have jurisdiction over the complaints but the commissioner disagreed and continued his investigation, the report said. Marleau began “gathering documentary evidence and conducting interviews under oath” at the end of September, the report noted.

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Days later, Chiarelli released a statement saying his “ability to respond” to allegations against him was affected by “ongoing and serious medical challenges.” The councillor also denied ever having treated a member of his staff or job candidate “in a sexually harassing, discriminatory, or inappropriate ‘gender-based fashion” and again challenged Marleau’s jurisdiction in dealing with complaints of that nature.

When Marleau disagreed again, Chiarelli told him he didn’t plan to provide “a substantive response” to the allegations “in light of the jurisdictional issue” and he said he would challenge the commissioner’s jurisdiction in court, the interim report said.

On Dec. 10, the commissioner asked Chiarelli in writing to participate in an interview under oath and was advised three days later that the councillor had been admitted to the Ottawa Heart Institute for open-heart surgery. Chiarelli, however, indicated he will consider a request to participate in an interview “once his recovery has progressed,” Marleau wrote.

Marleau’s probe has been “at a standstill” since then, the interim report said.

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“With the aim of upholding the principles of procedural fairness and natural justice, before finalizing the investigations, I will allow for a reasonable amount of time for the respondent to recover from his medical issues. I will then seek his response to the allegations set out in the formal complaints,” Marleau wrote.

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“…After a reasonable amount of time has elapsed without comment from the respondent, I may choose to resume and conclude the investigations.”

When asked Wednesday what “a reasonable amount of time” might be, Marleau said he plans to continue speaking with Chiarelli’s lawyers on that issue and to fix a date for the councillor to participate in his investigation, should he choose to.

Following his heart surgery, messages posted to Chiarelli’s Twitter account — and attributed to his wife ⁠— said the councillor was released and then re-admitted to hospital because of a “serious” post-operative bacterial infection in his chest.

On Feb. 6, Lida Chiarelli wrote that her husband was out of the hospital again but still continuing treatment for the infection at home.

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Typically, investigations by the integrity commissioner are completed within 90 days, Marleau’s report noted. Marleau told councillors he does anticipate releasing his final report this calendar year.

Marleau told councillors he determined he has jurisdiction to investigate the complaints against Chiarelli based “on the basis of the practice and the jurisprudence in Ontario for integrity commissioners.”

In his report, Marleau said he hadn’t yet been served with a court application by Chiarelli on the jurisdiction issue.

Chiarelli “remains prepared to move forward with such formal legal action,” according to the letter from his lawyers.

“Before doing so, however, our client wants to exhaust any and all internal mechanisms, related to the city’s internal policies and procedures, so that it cannot be later argued that a judicial review application was somehow premature,” the letter said.

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