The Alberta premier’s office denies a former staffer at the legislature was subject to a poisoned work environment and says it addressed harassment complaints, in response to a lawsuit.
Ariella Kimmel, who worked as the chief of staff to Minister Doug Schweitzer from last August to February, is suing the premier’s office saying she suffered from the toxic culture in the building and was fired in retaliation for raising misconduct and sexual harassment issues there.
The premier’s office has now filed its statement of defence in the lawsuit, stating she was terminated in line with her contract.
CBC News has obtained a copy of that filing. None of the allegations have been proven in court and Premier Jason Kenney is not named.
It denies all the allegations, except what is expressly admitted in the document. Throughout her claim, Kimmel alleges she escalated concerns of harassment and misconduct to multiple senior officials in Kenney’s office but nothing was done to address them. While the statement of defence confirms some people did know of the issues, the premier’s office denies the matters were ignored.
“The [office] investigated and took action with respect to any harassment complaint which was brought forward during the term of the plaintiff’s employment,” it reads.
It says policies and procedures on harassment were in place, and in September 2020, all of the premier’s office and ministerial staff were told they needed to complete online respect in the workplace training.
“[We] could not discuss with the plaintiff the details of any concerns raised by others as those details were the personal information of those involved.”
Sexual harassment allegation ‘resolved,’ document says
Kimmel’s lawsuit alleges that Ivan Bernardo, who was employed with the minister of health, made a sexually inappropriate comment to one of her female staff last October, saying “I haven’t seen you on this floor before because with a body like that, I would have noticed you.”
The statement of defence says that if the comment occurred as alleged, that behaviour is not condoned. It notes the comment was not made about Kimmel, and the staff member who was targeted did not raise the issue formally.
“The incident was resolved to the satisfaction of the individual to whom the comment was directed insofar as is known,” the statement says.
Another woman who worked in the building previously told CBC News that Bernardo was also inappropriate with her and says her complaint was dealt with the way she requested.
Bernardo remained with the minister’s office until December 2020 and was still on legal retainer with Alberta Health Services until CBC News reported the allegations against him this fall.
While the defence statement disputed when Chris Thresher, then the health minister’s chief of staff, and Matt Wolf, the premier’s director of issues management, were told about the incident, they admitted Kimmel did inform both men of Bernardo’s alleged behaviour. Kimmel spoke to Thresher more than once, it added.
The statement says Thresher told Kimmel to tell her supervisor about it, and Wolf told her to ask the woman in question to speak to him if she wished to pursue a complaint. It alleges the woman did not pursue one.
It confirms Kimmel raised her concerns last fall with Amber Griffith, who was in charge of HR in the premier’s office, and that Bernardo’s alleged comment had not been addressed. It alleges Kimmel said the staffer did not wish for a formal investigation and that she did not want to discuss the incident with Griffith. They deny Griffith became enraged during the conversation, as Kimmel had asserted.
The premier’s office has initiated an independent review of its HR policies for political staff in the wake of the lawsuit.
Minister disputes alleged role in Kimmel’s termination
The defence statement alleges Kimmel was let go because her boss, Schweitzer, wanted his old chief of staff to replace her in that role. The statement says that because of that request and the fact no other positions were available within the government for Kimmel, they fired her.
Schweitzer told CBC News those assertions are missing context.
He explained that when he was moving into Jobs, Economy and Innovation in August 2020, he had requested to keep his chief of staff from Justice. He says the premier’s chief of staff promised that could happen after the fall session. He says he followed up a few months later and was told the switch would be made at the next co-ordinated staff shuffle.
“I assumed Ariella Kimmel was going to be moved to another office in the legislature during this staffing shuffle. To be clear, I never asked the premier’s office to terminate her employment,” he wrote.
“While ministers are asked for input, staffing decisions in ministry offices are made by the HR team in the premier’s office.”
The premier’s office also denies the allegation that its staff started rumours about Kimmel (she alleges staff circulated rumours) and says it had no direct knowledge of an alleged altercation between Kimmel and then-minister Devin Dreeshen.
The two had previously been in an on-off relationship, and Kimmel alleges one evening last October during a gathering in a minister’s office that Dreeshen was heavily intoxicated, and after she encouraged him to stop drinking, he “aggressively yelled at her to the point where she was in tears and a concerned bystander intervened.”
The statement says if the incident occurred, it was a personal disagreement and she was not acting in the scope of her job.
Dreeshen resigned as CBC News reported more allegations of heavy drinking, including locking the office doors and initiating a password to gain entry while alcohol was being consumed.
Throughout the statement, the premier’s office says Kimmel never asked the people she spoke with to take action on the concerns she raised. They add that Kenney’s chief of staff at the time was not informed by Kimmel of any of the allegations. However, both the premier and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon have indicated they’d spoken to him about the Bernardo incident.
The office denies Kimmel told Kenney’s principal secretary, Larry Kaumeyer, of the issues in November, nor that he assured her that she was “not going to be fired.” It confirms the two met in January, and while she raised concerns then, she never asked him to take steps to address them.
The statement also says Pam Livingston, who is now Kenney’s chief of staff, did speak with Kimmel about her relationship with Dreeshen. It says she asked for guidance but at no time asked for any steps to be taken.
Counter-allegations that Kimmel was disrespectful and gossiped
The premier’s office also alleges Kimmel engaged in unprofessional behaviour during her time in the legislature, including disrespecting staff, gossiping with her colleagues and criticizing staff and her supervisors. Kaumeyer, it alleges, confronted her about her behaviour during their meeting and she continued to act that way.
“This is just an extension of the retaliatory conduct that my client has endured for a long time now from the government,” Kimmel’s lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, told CBC News.
“It is one of the main reasons that a lot of people don’t blow the whistle and they don’t speak out about wrongdoing in the workplace because they don’t want to be character assassinated.”
Schweitzer said he is unaware of any of the performance or behavioural complaints the statement alleges about Kimmel.
She was fired without cause on Feb. 5, 2021, and was provided $2,659 and a reference letter, the statement says.
It adds that Kimmel is entitled to $29,541 for pay in lieu of notice and they would be willing to release that amount. Any additional remuneration for financial damages, they claim, are mitigated by her quickly finding work and the document argues her salary from any new employment should be deducted from any damages the court may award to her.
The premier’s office denies that there was bad faith conduct or that they treated Kimmel maliciously and say she was terminated in accordance with her work contract.
Though they deny allegations that she suffered distress, they say if that’s the case, she should pursue damages through the Workers’ Compensation Act instead.
The premier’s office is asking that the lawsuit be dismissed with costs.
Marshall says she will be filing a final reply to the defence, after which witnesses will be subpoenaed.
“I’m looking forward to cross-examining Premier Jason Kenney,” she said.