Dismissed staff member alleges sexual harassment and poisoning in lawsuit against Alberta Premier’s office

A former member of the Alberta Legislature is suing the premier’s office, claiming she suffered from a toxic work culture and was fired in retaliation for speaking out about the problems she had seen there.

Allegations in Ariella Kimmel’s trial include sexual harassment and alcohol abuse by ministers and staff in Legislative Assembly offices, as well as allegations that senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office fabricated rumors about him, contributing to his dismissal.

CBC News obtained a copy of the legal document. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Kimmel worked as Chief of Staff to the Minister of Employment, Economy and Innovation from August 2020 until her dismissal in February 2021. She had worked for Jason Kenney’s UCP government since May 2019.

The Kenney office is the oversight office responsible for ministries. Kenney himself is not named in the costume.

The statement says that in mid-October 2020, Kimmel found Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen drinking with a chief of staff in his office. They then ended up in another minister’s office, where ministers and staff in attendance appeared to be heavily intoxicated, Kimmel said.

Her statement said that during the rally, she expressed concern about Dreeshen’s drunkenness and encouraged him to stop drinking.

After leaving the suite, according to the lawsuit, the minister confronted her about the intervention and “yelled at her aggressively to the point that she was in tears and a concerned passer-by intervened.”

Prior to his appointment as chief of staff that year, Kimmel had had an intermittent relationship with Dreeshen.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen is cited in the lawsuit, alleging he drank too much and it affected the work environment. (Nathan Gross / CBC)

Alleged sexual harassment in the minister’s office

Two days later, another group of employees gathered for drinks in the Minister of Health’s office. That night, Ivan Bernardo, the minister’s top adviser, allegedly made a sexually inappropriate comment to one of Kimmel’s employees.

“I’ve never seen you on this floor before because with a body like that I would have noticed you,” Bernardo said in the statement.

The statement also alleges that Bernardo was known to have been sexually inappropriate with other women in the building.

The next day, Kimmel reported the exchange to Chris Thresher, chief of staff in health, and Matt Wolf, director of issues management for the Prime Minister.

She didn’t hear anything for almost a month.

On November 17, Kenney’s principal secretary Larry Kaumeyer asked to meet with her because people feared she would be upset, according to the lawsuit.

Kimmel indicated that she spoke to Kaumeyer about the confrontation with Dreeshen, the heavy drinking in the office and the alleged sexual harassment of Bernardo.

The statement said Kaumeyer told him that Bernardo “was not going to be fired” and had decided to leave his post anyway at the end of the year. He did not indicate whether his other concerns would be taken into account. Kaumeyer no longer works in the Prime Minister’s office.

“Zero tolerance for harassment,” says government

“Sexual harassment is heinous and has no place in our workplaces or in society,” Pam Livingston, Premier’s Chief of Staff, wrote to CBC News.

“This government has zero tolerance for harassment and takes all allegations of this nature very seriously. We are fortunate to have a highly skilled and diverse public service and we are committed to providing a safe and productive workplace for all of them.

The statement said the government cannot comment on confidential human resources issues, that Kimmel’s dismissal was unrelated to the issues being tried and that he would fully respond to the allegations in court.

Kenney’s office also promised to launch an independent review of human resources policies for political staff to ensure processes are clear and staff are aware of procedures. Political staff are currently mandated to take respectful workplace training. The statement did not address Dreeshen’s alleged behavior.

CBC News has also contacted those named in the statement.

“It would be inappropriate of me to comment in any way on statements made in connection with the claim, as I will likely be called as a witness in any proceeding,” Bernardo wrote in an email. “I look forward to an independent and impartial review by the tribunal, and look forward to providing my testimony.”

Kenney heads to the Alberta Legislative Assembly chamber in March 2020. Kimmel alleges in her lawsuit that senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office fabricated rumors that she contributed to his dismissal. None of the allegations have been proven in court. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press)

Ministers and senior officials learned about concerns about bad behavior

In December 2020, Kimmel dined with Rebecca Schulz, the Minister of Children’s Services. The document says the minister said she heard rumors of sexual harassment and wanted to know what Kimmel knew. She communicated her allegations to the minister without revealing the names.

Over the dinner, according to the claim, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon called Schulz to discuss Bernardo’s alleged behavior. He indicated that Nixon mentioned he would raise the issue with the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.

“Sexual harassment is totally unacceptable and disgusting,” Schulz said in a statement to CBC News Wednesday. “After hearing the allegations, I met Ms. Kimmel and discussed the concerns I had heard. I then spoke with the House leader about these concerns. with the allegations. “

The next day, Kimmel spoke to Nixon about his concern that the harassment allegation was not being handled properly. The lawsuit says he promised he would be dealt with immediately.

“I have been approached about disturbing rumors regarding Mr. Bernardo’s behavior,” Nixon said in a written statement to CBC News.

“Hearing this, I telephoned a trusted colleague at the firm to ask if he had heard any similar rumors. After speaking with Minister Schulz, I immediately contacted the Prime Minister’s Chief of Personnel and Human Resources to inform him of the rumors I had heard and said he was being treated. “

Bernardo learned in December that his contract was not renewed.

CBC News obtained the email Bernardo sent to Legislative Assembly staff on December 13, 2020, announcing that he had resigned from his post to resume practicing law. Bernardo is now a lawyer with Miller Thomson LLP in Calgary.

To Kimmel’s knowledge, no formal investigation into the sexual harassment has been undertaken and no official support has been offered by the Prime Minister’s Office to the women concerned.

After Bernardo left, Kimmel spoke to Amber Griffith, the Prime Minister’s director of human resources, about what she saw as insufficient measures to tackle harassment. Kimmel recommended that staff be given a written policy on sexual harassment that would include a clear mechanism for complaints and investigations, according to the document.

Kimmel said she was not sure she could provide a safe working environment for her staff until a policy was implemented.

The lawsuit suggests Griffith was offended by the comment and told Kimmel that another woman who had filed a lawsuit against Bernardo had, in fact, been promoted.

“Unreasonable, malicious and vicious actions and inactions”

After the December recess, Kimmel learned that senior officials circulated rumors that she was the source of several media leaks, according to the statement. She maintains that she did not disclose any unauthorized information.

On January 6, 2021, Kimmel again raised concerns about Dreeshen’s aggressive conduct in October and continued to “drink excessively”, this time to Livingston, now Kenney’s chief of staff. She also said that an anonymous social media account had started tweeting details of her relationship with the minister.

The same concerns about Dreeshen’s poisoning had been raised with other senior Kenney staff and, according to the statement, no action was taken.

Three days later, according to the statement, she met with Kenney’s principal secretary again to express concern about the rumors targeting her. Kaumeyer told Kimmel she would not be fired.

On February 5, Kimmel learned she was fired. She alleges that Kaumeyer said at the time that it was “the best thing for you”.

“We have seen a lot over the past two years of cases or media reports of misconduct in political offices and of political staff who suffer and often have to suffer in silence. is just going to pop the lid and show that everyone deserves a safe and healthy work environment, “Kimmel attorney Kathryn Marshall, employment lawyer at Milburn & Associates, told CBC News.

“Politicians need to lead by example, and this will set a new standard for how politicians are to be treated.”

The lawsuit is claiming more than $ 399,000 in damages and the equivalent of his salary until his contract expires in May 2023.

He lists the damages as subjecting Kimmel to a “poisoned work environment”, fabricating and spreading rumors against her, failing to implement a strong sexual harassment policy, terminating her employment in retaliation, causing mental distress and damage to his reputation, and affecting his future employment opportunities. .

“She suffered significant mental and physical distress as a result of the inadmissible, malicious and vicious actions and inactions taken,” he concludes.

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