After the story broke in late October that Doug Schweitzer’s ministerial chief of staff, Ariella Kimmel, had filed a lawsuit claiming she was unjustly fired for complaining about sexual harassment in a workplace where open drinking and abusive behaviour were tolerated, the minister of jobs, economy and innovation told reporters he wasn’t aware of her allegations.
“A lot of the information that came out in the media yesterday was new to me,” Schweitzer said at the time. “That being said, you know, Ariella Kimmel is an excellent staffer, I’ve been a reference for her after she, you know, departed from the legislature, and I’d still be a reference for her today.”
A statement of defence in the case filed by the premier’s office, however, indicates that whether or not Schweitzer knew Kimmel was going to be fired or the reasons that would be given, he did play a role in the circumstances leading to her dismissal.
“On several occasions, Minister Schweitzer had requested that his former chief of staff be reappointed to the chief of staff position held by the plaintiff,” the statement of defence says. “As a result of the foregoing and due to the fact that no other role was available for the plaintiff, the defendant decided to terminate the plaintiff’s employment.” The defendant in this statement is the office of the premier.
“The plaintiff was terminated, without cause, on February 5, 2021,” the statement of defence bluntly goes on to say, before adding that Kimmel “was given the opportunity to, and did, provide input into the messaging sent out with respect to her exit from the Defendant.” She was paid severance of $2,659 and given a reference letter, the statement says.
When CBC Calgary broke the story about the statement of defence yesterday afternoon, reporter Elise von Scheel interviewed Schweitzer, who told her, in the CBC’s words, the assertions in the statement of defence “are missing context.”
It’s true he wanted to see his former chief of staff return, Schweitzer told the CBC reporter, but he said he was just following up on a promise by staff in the Premier’s Office this would happen the next time there was a shuffle of ministerial staff.
“I assumed Ariella Kimmel was going to be moved to another office in the legislature during this staffing shuffle,” he told von Scheel. “To be clear, I never asked the premier’s office to terminate her employment.”
Schweitzer also insisted to the CBC he was unaware of any of the complaints about Kimmel’s performance and behaviour described in the statement of defence.
Putting this in the best possible light from Schweitzer’s perspective, it’s extremely surprising the Premier’s Office didn’t thoroughly brief him on what it was going to say in its statement of defence to Kimmel’s allegations, which have been widely published by media.
It would also be fair to observe that his failure to ask what was going to happen to a senior employee he was seeking to replace is unusual.
Regardless, as the CBC’s story makes clear, the statement of defence disputes many claims made by Kimmel. It denies there was a toxic culture of misconduct and harassment in the building, and implies the premier’s office had no knowledge of inappropriate comments alleged to have been made by a lawyer employed by the government at the time.
It also denies it had any knowledge of an incident in former agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen’s office described in Kimmel’s statement of claim and argues, if it took place, “it was a disagreement between the plaintiff and Mr. Dreeshen, with whom the plaintiff was admittedly involved in a personal relationship.”
Moreover, the statement of defence goes to some length to allege Kimmel “engaged in inappropriate and disrespectful and behaviour toward her scheduling staff” and others, and “engaged in gossip with other employees…” The statement of defence also denied anyone in the premier’s office was the source of rumours about Kimmel alleged in her statement of claim.
Kimmel’s lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, described the claims made in the statement of defence as “just an extension of the retaliatory conduct that my client has endured for a long time now from the government.”
“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,” she told the CBC.
The Kenney government has been quite successful in making this situation out to be a story about drunkenness and sophomoric hijinks in the office of one minister, Dreeshen, who is no longer a member of cabinet.
None of the facts in either Kimmel’s statement of claim or the premier’s office’s statement of defence have been proved in court, but it’s nevertheless important to keep in mind that this is a story about an employee who complained about harassment of other female employees, and may have been fired for raising the issue.
The statement of defence says that the premier’s office is willing to pay Kimmel an additional $29,541.38, “less required deductions,” in accordance with her employment agreement.
Kimmel is seeking $399,000 in salary and damages.