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Lawsuit alleges Alberta premier's office failed to address sex harassment complaint

EDMONTON — A former senior political staffer in the Alberta government alleges in a lawsuit that the premier’s office fostered a “poisoned work environment” and repeatedly failed to address her complaint of sexual harassment about another employee.

EDMONTON — A former senior political staffer in the Alberta government alleges in a lawsuit that the premier’s office fostered a “poisoned work environment” and repeatedly failed to address her complaint of sexual harassment about another employee.

Ariella Kimmel also alleges that she was fired after she repeatedly raised concerns about the alleged harassment.

“(Kimmel) has suffered significant mental and physical distress due to the unconscionable, malicious and vicious actions and inactions taken by the defendant,” says a statement of claim filed Oct. 1.

Kimmel's lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, said her client was not giving interviews.

None of the allegations has been proven in court.

During question period Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney said he was informed last fall about what he called rumours of inappropriate comments made to female staff by a senior staff member.

“I was assured that action was being taken and shortly thereafter that individual's contract ended with the government,” said Kenney.

“We are appointing an independent review to advise the government on how to improve human resources practices for political staff, so they know they are safe to come forward to report their experiences to ensure that action is taken.”

In the statement of claim, Kimmel alleges the harassment took place over almost four months starting in October 2020, when she was chief of staff to the minister of jobs, economy and innovation.

On Oct. 21, Kimmel says, she joined others having drinks in then-health minister Tyler Shandro's office. The statement of claim alleges Ivan Bernardo, a senior adviser to Shandro, told one of Kimmel's female staff: “I haven’t seen you on this floor before because with a body like that, I would have noticed you.” 

The document says the employee was humiliated, and problems spiralled for Kimmel when she went up the chain of command.

Kimmel says she immediately reported the alleged harassment to the premier’s office. The lawsuit says almost a month later, Kimmel was told by Larry Kaumeyer, Kenney's principal secretary at the time, that Bernardo would soon be leaving his job, but “did not advise (Kimmel) if anything was going to be done by the premier’s office to address the serious issues she had raised.” 

The lawsuit says Kimmel spoke in early December with house leader Jason Nixon, who assured her “it would be addressed immediately,” but it was not. 

Nixon said in a statement Wednesday that he acted when he heard what he called rumours of the alleged harassment. 

“I immediately contacted the premier’s then-chief of staff and human resources ... and was told it was being dealt with. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Bernardo left the government,” said Nixon. 

The lawsuit says Kimmel also tried to get Amber Griffith, a senior staffer in the premier’s office, to address the harassment allegation and ensure that a written policy on sex harassment, with rules on how to file a complaint and how it should be investigated, was distributed to staff.

The document says Kimmel told Griffith she could not provide a safe work environment without clear rules, and an “enraged” Griffith responded: “How can you say that? We promoted the woman who came forward with that complaint about Ivan.” 

Kimmel then became the subject of malicious gossip and online harassment, says the statement of claim. 

The lawsuit says that in January 2021, an anonymous Twitter account released details of a past romantic relationship between Kimmel and Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen.  

The lawsuit also accuses the premier’s office of failing to support Kimmel in October 2020, following an encounter with Dreeshen. The document alleges that Dreeshen was drinking in a legislature office and, when Kimmel implored him to cut back, he later yelled at her to the point that she was in tears.

At the same time, the lawsuit alleges, Griffith was spreading untrue accusations that Kimmel was responsible for leaking details to the media of the so-called Alohagate story. The story detailed how some of Kenney’s caucus and senior staff travelled abroad over Christmas, despite the government urging Albertans to stay home to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  

On Feb. 5, the statement of claim says, Kimmel was fired byKaumeyer, who told her, “This is the best thing for you.” 

Dreeshen and Griffith could not be reached for comment. 

Bernardo, who now works as a lawyer in Calgary, said in a statement: “This matter is now before the courts. It would be inappropriate for me to comment in any manner on the statements made within the claim, as 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.” 

The lawsuit seeks backpay for what Kimmel would have made had she served her contract through to 2023, along with damages. 

Kenney's chief of staff, Pam Livingston, said in a statement Wednesday that the decision to end Kimmel's employment was unrelated to issues raised in the lawsuit.

"Sexual harassment is abhorrent and has no place in our workplaces or society," Livingston said.

"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." 

Livingston said Bernardo has not been with the government since December 2020.

Kaumeyer also left the government and became the head of Ducks Unlimited in August.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2021.

-- With files from Fakiha Baig

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press