Former staffer suing Premier Kenney's office for wrongful dismissal after alleging sexual harassment, intoxication
A former senior staff member in Alberta's UCP government has filed a lawsuit against the premier’s office alleging she was fired for speaking out about sexual harassment, heavy drinking and a "poisoned work environment."
In the statement of claim filed in the Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton, Ariella Kimmel alleges she witnessed sexual harassment of another female staffer, says she was verbally abused while working for Premier Jason Kenney’s government and even blew the whistle on the behaviour before losing her job in “reprisal.”
Kimmel, who was hired as the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation on Aug. 31, 2020, did not respond to CTV’s request for an interview, but her lawyer, Kathryn Marshall issued a statement.
“Everyone deserves a safe work environment free from harassment. In the past few years, we have seen numerous incidents of inappropriate conduct in political offices. Political staffers are often forced to suffer in silence and have little to no recourse. It is wrong, and it needs to end. Politicians must lead by example. Every political office should have a clear sexual harassment policy and no political staffer should ever be fired from his or her job for blowing the whistle on sexual harassment, as was done in this case,” she said.
None of the allegations have been tested in court. No statement of defence has been filed.
'POISONED WORK ENVIRONMENT'
In the court document, it's alleged that Kimmel was in a "poisoned work environment" filled with rumours, verbal abuse and heavy drinking.
Kimmel first reported an incident involving Devin Dreeshen, Alberta's agriculture and forestry minister, with whom she had a previous romantic relationship.
According to the claim, Kimmel witnessed a situation on Oct. 19, 2020, where Dreeshen was drinking with Robyn Henwood, who was the chief of staff of the Minister of Community Services at the time, and was told they would be going to another office to continue drinking.
"Later that evening the plaintiff met Mr. Dreeshen and Ms. Henwood at another Minister's office. They had been joined by another Minister, a staffer and a former MLA. The plaintiff immediately observed that all the individuals were heavily intoxicated," the statement of claim reads.
Kimmel told Dreeshen she was concerned about his excessive drinking and advised him to stop.
The pair left the office together and, while they were walking together, Kimmel alleges that Dreeshen "angrily confronted" her about the situation and "aggressively yelled at her" until she was in tears.
"The plaintiff felt shaken and scared during this encounter."
According to the claim, two days later, while Kimmel was drinking with colleagues in Minister Tyler Shandro's office, she witnessed Ivan Bernardo, who was the principal secretary to then-Minister of Health Tyler Shandro, make a sexually inappropriate comment to one of her staff members.
Kimmel alleges that "Mr. Bernardo looked at this female's body and told her, 'I haven't seen you on this floor before because with a body like that, I would have noticed you!'"
According to the claim, Kimmel noticed the staff member was "very upset" at the exchange and noted that Bernardo had a history of such lewd comments.
On Oct. 22, Kimmel reported the incident to Chris Thresher, the health minister's chief of staff, and Matt Wolf, Premier Kenney's director of issues management.
Almost a month later, she claims she was called into a meeting with Kenney's principal secretary Larry Kaumeyer to discuss the situation, which had made her "clearly upset."
According to the statement of claim, upon relaying all the information about the incidents, Kaumeyer informed Kimmel that Bernardo would not lose his job as he had already decided to leave at the end of the year.
There was no reassurance that anything would be done about the serious issues she had raised at the meeting.
On Dec. 4, 2020, Kimmel states she contacted Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon about the situation involving Bernardo that, at this point, was widely known by a number of ministers and staff members in the office. She was concerned that it was not being urgently addressed.
Nixon told her "it would be addressed immediately" but, instead, Kimmel was informed that Bernardo's contract was not being renewed.
"No steps were taken by Premier Kenney's office to support the victim(s) or investigate the sexual harassment," according to the claim.
The statement of claim goes on to allege that in the new year, when it was rumoured that the media had been told about the 'Ivan story', Kimmel was accused of leaking it, along with a report that Kenney's chief of staff Jamie Huckabay travelled to the U.K. for Christmas.
Kimmel contended she did not share any details of those situations to the media.
Kimmel claims she met with Kaumeyer again, this time at his home, to express her concern that other staff members were accusing her of leaking information about the two incidents to the media.
She denied that was the case and he confided in her that he believed her and told her she "wouldn't get fired."
"Following this meeting, the plaintiff heard nothing from Mr. Kaumeyer or Premier Kenney's office."
On Feb. 5, 2021, Kimmel says she was informed by Kaumeyer that she was fired. Afterwards, she learned that rumours were being circulated that she was terminated because of the Huckabay travel story.
"These false and malicious rumours cost the plaintiff a number of job opportunities and negatively impacted her ability to re-employ," the court document states.
In the lawsuit, Kimmel is seeking $199,233 (the balance owed to her for her term of employment), $100,000 in moral damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.
She is also seeking a declaration that she was wrongfully terminated along with costs of the legal action.
KENNEY'S OFFICE CONDEMNS SEXUAL HARASSMENT
In a statement to CTV News, Kenney's office said it could not speak to specifics on confidential human resource matters, but adds sexual harassment "has no place" in society.
"Any government employee who believes they have witnessed or been personally subjected to harassment is strongly encouraged to come forward so that appropriate action can be taken," said Pam Livingston, Kenney's chief of staff, in an email to CTV 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."
She added Bernardo hasn't worked with the government since December 2020 and the reason for Kimmel's termination "was unrelated to the matters contained in her statement of claim."
"The government will fully respond to the allegations in court as appropriate and required," Livingston said.
Bernardo, who responded to a request for comment from CTV News Wednesday, says it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the matter as it is now before the court.
"I will likely be called as a witness in any proceedings. I welcome an independent and impartial review by the court, and I look forward to providing my testimony."