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Alberta's Expensesgate scandal: Just saying it's over doesn't mean it's over

Don Scott

Alberta's mainstream media finally got around yesterday to acknowledging the obvious, that Alberta Health Services may have left itself (and the rest of us who pay its bills) wide open to a costly lawsuit by tossing former CFO Allaudin Merali under the bus and then denying him severance without so much as a tip of the hat to due process.

In other words, to summarize the message from a law professor consulted by the Calgary Herald and an employment lawyer interviewed by the CBC, just saying the Expensesgate Scandal is over doesn't mean it's over.

Quoth the Herald: "Taxpayers could be left on the hook for legal costs on top of the original severance payout, warned University of Alberta faculty of law professor James Muir."

One would like to think that AHS hasn’t just been making it up as it goes along and actually has some foundation for believing that there’s a legal way to deny Merali his severance where there's no evidence he ever broke the rules, as ridiculous as the rules seem to have been, either when he was employed by Capital Health back in the mid-Zeros, or more recently when he worked for Alberta Health Services.

But there is no evidence of this. If you ask Alberta Health Services' available spokespeople, they will tell you they have no idea of why the AHS Board concluded it could do what it is doing, why the government is going along with it, or what they think Merali is likely to do.

Since the Alberta government and AHS keep insisting we're about to embark on a new era of transparency, this would seem to be an excellent first topic to be transparent about.

Indeed, just today Fort McMurray-Conklin MLA Don Scott, who is Premier Alison Redford's "associate minister of accountability, transparency and transformation," announced that he has been asked to lead "an initiative that will result in greater transparency on travel and expenses." It wasn't necessarily a promising sign -- although it had a familiar Alberta ring to it -- that Scott immediately made like the Invisible Man and refused to talk to the media about his new transparency plans!

Speaking of transparency, another excellent topic for some degree of translucency at least would be a clear explanation of what Health Minister Fred Horne's work involved when he was being paid as a consultant to Capital Health in 2005.

At his news conference a week ago, the day after this embarrassing story about Merali's expenses broke, Horne said he couldn't recall what he and the Capital Health chief financial officer had been talking about on the occasion of their $220 dinner at Jack's Grill in May 2005.

Fair enough, I guess, since there's been a lot of Pouilly-Fuissé under the bridge since then. But surely Horne, now the MLA for Edmonton-Rutherford, can remember the general nature of the work he was doing for Capital Health, which for obvious reasons is relevant to Alberta voters in light of this month's events.

Oddly enough, such a disclosure might well make the government and AHS both look better. Horne was, after all, legitimately employed to do something that someone thought was needed and important. Under the circumstances, a working dinner makes sense and the one he had with Merali was clearly well within the rather loosy-goosey expense account rules in place at Capital Health at the time.

While we're still on this transparency bit, though, a related question worth asking might be the time frame when Horne worked as executive assistant to Edmonton-Whitemud MLA Dave Hancock, then the minister of advanced education and later the minister of health, and when he did his consulting work for AHS. It's hard to imagine he did both at the same time, but the time frames set out in recent news coverage and Horne's Wikipedia entry are confusing on this count.

Interestingly, if Merali and Horne were in the same employment relationship today as they were in 2005, they could still have dinner, but it would be a rather more Spartan affair thanks to the considerably tighter rules put in place by the frequently maligned Stephen Duckett during his tenure as supremo of Alberta Health Services.

Say what you will about Duckett, the controversial Australian PhD economist who headed AHS from the spring of 2009 until the Notorious Cookie Incident in November 2010 (when the government had realized he had become a lightning rod for public discontent with its handling of the health care system and gave him the bum's rush), his record is not universally bad. His revised expenses policy, which is worth reading, is an example.

The system that was in place at Capital Health during Merali's tenure there essentially allowed C-level executives to approve their own and each other's expenses. This was the policy Sheila Weatherill, who had been the CEO of Capital Health at the time, defended as "consistent with other public sector organizations" in her resignation letter from the AHS Board a week ago, after she'd gone down as collateral damage to l'affaire Merali. The rules put in place by Duckett are much more stringent.

For example, Duckett's exhaustive policy banned the practice of health system employees buying each other meals when they had all day in their offices to talk business -- a loophole in the Capital Health rules Merali (and no doubt many others) seems to have exploited.

As for bottles of fine wine, apparently so beloved of Merali, once Duckett was at the helm … fuggetaboudit! Alcohol could not be expensed -- unless, presumably, it was to be used in a ward as a disinfectant.

The worst thing about this continuing fiasco is the way it plays directly into the hands of public health care's most determined foes, who are often members of the same group of people who contributed to the problem.

It is ironic in the extreme that the behaviour of privatization-friendly senior executives, consultants they hired and right-wing politicians that supported them -- often the very same people playing a variety of different roles at different times -- is now being used to make a spurious case for the replacement public health care by private, for-profit medicine.

Depend on it, if more privatization comes our way as a result of this scandal, only one thing will be better -- the same executives, politicians and consultants will be able to toast their privatization successes with alcohol again.

But we taxpayers -- who will still be paying for it, and paying more, plus waiting longer for care -- will no longer be the wiser.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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