EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's office is countering a former senior staffer's accusations of sexual harassment, drinking, and backbiting with allegations of its own.
The premier’s office, in a statement of defence to Ariella Kimmel's lawsuit, says it did not fire her for raising concerns about workplace sexual harassment. It says she was let go because she openly gossiped, criticized, and shared personal details about colleagues and supervisors.
The document also says she was fired because her boss at the time, Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer, wanted someone else as chief of staff and there was no place else to put Kimmel.
“During the tenure of her employment [Kimmel] engaged in inappropriate and disrespectful behaviour towards scheduling staff, the director of talent, and other members of the premier’s office staff and department officials,” says the document filed Monday.
“She also engaged in gossip with other employees of the defendant during which she shared personal details about her colleagues and openly criticized her colleagues, her supervisors, and her former colleagues.”
The document says Kimmel continued with destructive behaviour after being warned about it.
She was dismissed Feb. 5.
Kimmel is suing the premier’s office for back pay and damages, and in her lawsuit alleges her professional reputation suffered and she was exposed to a “poisoned work environment.”
None of the allegations in the lawsuit or statement of defence has been tested in court.
Kimmel’s lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, responded Thursday.
“The statement of defence contains completely false allegations about my client’s character,” Marshall said in a statement.
“One of the primary reasons whistleblowers don’t speak out about misconduct in the workplace is fear of the type of character assassination that the premier’s office is engaging in.
“We intend to file a reply to the statement of defence and look forward to cross-examining the premier.”
In her statement of claim, which was filed two months ago, Kimmel alleges the dispute took place over almost four months, starting in October 2020, when she was Schweitzer's chief of staff.
Kimmel alleges she reached out many times to two other cabinet ministers and multiple senior staff in Kenney's office in an attempt to seek redress and establish clear rules after one of her staff was humiliated by senior health official Ivan Bernardo at an office drinks get-together.
In the lawsuit, Kimmel alleges Bernardo told the employee: "I haven't seen you on this floor before because with a body like that, I would have noticed you.''
The claim says Kimmel was told Bernardo would be leaving his job by the end of 2020, which he did. In the meantime, the lawsuit alleges, Kimmel was subject to anonymous online smears and gossip before being fired.
The premier’s office, in the statement of defence, says there were clear rules in place about reporting and acting on sexual harassment complaints.
As for the Bernardo accusations, the document says: “If the alleged comment was made, the incident was resolved to the satisfaction of the individual to whom the comment was directed insofar as is known to the defendant.”
Bernardo has previously declined to comment given the matter is before the courts. But he has said he looks forward to giving his side of the story.
In the statement of defence, the premier’s office says some conversations alleged by Kimmel did not take place. It denies it was responsible for gossip accusing Kimmel of leaking damaging news to the media, and denies it was behind an anonymous Twitter account that posted details about her alleged romantic relationship with former agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen.
Dreeshen also figures in Kimmel's lawsuit, which references a past relationship with Dreeshen and alleges she could not get support from the premier’s office about her concerns with his excessive drinking during one incident. The document alleges Dreeshen had been drinking in a legislature office and, when Kimmel implored him to cut back, he berated her to the point that she was in tears.
Dreeshen, citing concerns over his conduct with alcohol, stepped down from cabinet a month ago. The defence statement says if the argument occurred, it was a personal matter between Kimmel and Dreeshen.
“[Kimmel] was not acting within the scope of her employment at the time of the alleged incident,” it says.
On Thursday, Schweitzer said in a statement that while the premier's office has the final say on chief-of-staff appointments, he had asked that his chief from his former justice portfolio accompany him to his new role in the fall of 2020.
"I was informed that [the Justice chief of staff] would be moved to my office as a part of a co-ordinated staffing shuffle in early 2021," wrote Schweitzer.
"I assumed Ariella Kimmel was going to be moved to another office ... I never asked the premier’s office to terminate her employment."
Schweitzer added: "I am not aware of any complaints ever being brought against Ariella Kimmel relating to her behaviour or performance. I have been a reference for Ariella Kimmel since her departure from the legislature.”
The statement of defence asks that the lawsuit be dismissed with costs charged to Kimmel.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2021
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press