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Ombudsman pays almost $75,000 to lawyers over employment dispute

Victoria Pearman, the Ombudsman of Bermuda (Photograph supplied)

Almost $75,000 was paid to a private law firm last year by the Ombudsman’s office to deal with a dispute with a fired senior employee.

The sum was revealed in a notice published by the Ombudsman in the Official Gazette, which listed total spending of $637,461 in recent years on contracts worth more than $50,000.

The notice showed that Canterbury Law got $73,819 for legal services from November 25, 2019 until December 31 last year.

The bill is understood to have been racked up primarily in relation to the firing of Catherine Hay the Deputy Ombudsman by Victoria Pearman, the Ombudsman, in December 2019.

Ms Hay later filed a grievance against her dismissal, supported by the Bermuda Public Service Union.

The dispute has still not been resolved and Ms Pearman recently replaced Canterbury Law with Conyers law firm to handle the matter.

Details of payments to Conyers by the Ombudsman’s office – an independent watchdog set up to investigate complaints about government administration – have not yet been made public.

Ms Hay, a lawyer who became Ms Pearman’s second-in-command in 2015, was signed off work by doctors in May 2019 for medical reasons and later seconded to the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs.

She was fired after she asked for the secondment to be extended and after she made allegations of “negative and aggressive” behaviour and an “unhealthy culture” at the Office of the Ombudsman.

Ed Ball, the general secretary of the BPSU, accused Ms Pearman of misleading the Accountant General to end Ms Hay’s contract.

A labour dispute notice was published in the Official Gazette on November 10 last year by Jason Hayward, the Minister of Labour.

The minister said: “ … I declare that a labour dispute exists between the Bermuda Public Service Union and the Ombudsman for Bermuda.”

He added he would be referring the matter to the Labour Disputes Tribunal.

It is understood the tribunal has not yet met and that lawyers for both sides are in discussions.

The Ombudsman’s website said the office has four employees.

The Official Gazette notice said the office paid Barry Fleming, an experienced senior Ombudsman from Canada, $166,660 for a contract between September 2019 and December last year.

CR Services Firm received $130,000 for a contract for a professional analyst to assist with special projects between February 2015 and last month.

The office paid Dudley Ebbin $72,748.26 as a temporary junior investigation officer from February 7, 2020 to December 31 last year.

Kristen Augustus was paid $56,617.35 for temporary administrative duties between April 12, 2019 and the end of last month.

The office’s total spending figure of $637,461 on contracts also included office rent and computer services.

Ms Pearman said last week she was proud of the good work the office had done to “protect the interests of the public to be treated fairly in the provision of public services”.

She added: “I reiterate it would be inappropriate and I am unable to respond to any private, confidential employment matters in connection with any existing or previous staff with the Office of the Ombudsman.”

Ms Pearman said the office’s staff and contractors were Bermudian.

She added: “As Ombudsman, I have the responsibility to utilise the most effective, available resources to enable us to carry out the necessary work of this office so that we can provide the services required.

“This also takes account of the difficult Covid-19 emergency and financial pressures, operating within existing budgetary requirements which we have met consistently.

“This continues to be the case even when there are personnel changes. In doing so, the office relies on salaried employees and contractors to enable the office to do its work.”

Ms Pearman said: “The determination of resources to be used is based on the requirement of services and personnel needed, including further recruitment of qualified Bermudians.”

The Ombudsman added she had a duty to exercise “good stewardship” over public funds.

She said: “Where people have tried unsuccessfully to resolve their issues with a public authority and bring those complaints to our office, we work to facilitate a resolution of their disputes.”

Ms Hay declined to comment for this article.

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Published January 18, 2021 at 5:46 pm (Updated January 18, 2021 at 5:46 pm)

Ombudsman pays almost $75,000 to lawyers over employment dispute

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