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Alberta's latest political brouhaha: Why tossing Alauddin Merali under the bus may not have been a good idea

Alauddin Merali

The Alberta Tories fired Alberta Health Services Chief Financial Officer Alauddin Merali in haste last summer when the CBC revealed he'd made extravagant expense claims in a previous job at the Capital Health Authority.

Now they can repent at leisure, since their hasty action has unexpectedly created a new and serious political crisis for them.

The firing of Merali came back to haunt the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford because the latest senior health care executive to come under the CBC's scrutiny for iffy expense accounts filed with a previous employer happens to be the premier's sister.

So are the Redford Tories going to fire Lynn Redford too?

They might have to escape the political consequences of what they did to Merali -- or, to be technically accurate, what they pressed Alberta Health Services management to do to him. They're extremely unlikely to do anything of the sort, of course. If the video of their response yesterday is anything to go by, they’re going to refuse to say anything at all and bull aside anyone who gets in their way.

The CBC's revelations last July about Merali, who had not long before been appointed Chief Financial Officer and senior VP of Alberta Health Services, was that he had made lavish expense claims back when he was CFO of Capital Health.

Outrageously lavish as some of those claims seemed, it was said here at the time Merali ought not to have been fired because all his Capital Health expenses had been properly approved, and because there was no evidence he had done anything wrong while employed by AHS.

But the embarrassment was too much for the government, and they quickly made the AHS toss him under the bus.

Now the CBC has revealed Lynn Redford also had some improper expenses while she was a senior executive with the Calgary Health Region. Today, rather like Merali was, she is a VP of AHS. Like Merali's claims, her Calgary Health expenses were also approved by a more senior executive.

So just what are the differences in the cases, other than the obvious?

In Lynn Redford's defence, the expenses she claimed that have been queried by the CBC are vastly lower than the approximately $350,000 expensed by Merali over three and a half years.

On the other hand, unlike Merali's claims, some of hers appear on their face to have been illegal -- public funds used as donations to her sister's political party in violation of Alberta election financing laws enacted in 2004.

If Merali can be fired from AHS for doing nothing technically wrong in a previous job, how can Lynn Redford be kept in a similar role with the same organization for doing the same thing, and breaking the law to boot, also in a previous job?

Merali was fired from AHS on Aug. 1. That day, Chris Mazurkewich, who was acting as CEO of the province-wide health agency, said he had spoken to Merali and "we agreed that under the circumstances it would be difficult to fulfill his current role of CFO. He did have an employment contract and the employment contract has been terminated."

The next day, Health Minister Fred Horne announced that Sheila Weatherill, who as CEO of Capital Health had approved Merali's expenses, had offered her resignation from the AHS Board and he had accepted it.

According to Mazurkewich's logic, can Lynn Redford now fulfill her current role as AHS's special projects vice president? Can Patti Grier, who as a senior Calgary Health executive signed off on Lynn Redford's expenses, continue as chief of staff and corporate secretary of AHS?

Please note that I'm not saying Redford ought to be fired. Au contraire! I am saying Merali was fired for nakedly political reasons and little moral justification.

Nor is the Opposition calling for Lynn Redford to be fired. Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith did tell reporters, though, she thought Redford ought to be required to pay the back expenses that ended up going to Tory fundraisers.

Merali, it is said here, will almost certainly succeed if he sues AHS for wrongful dismissal. He was fired for something irrelevant to the job he was kicked out of, he can likely show he didn't do anything technically wrong anyway, and now he can also show other people who did the same thing are not treated in the same way.

If he sues and succeeds, the taxpayers of Alberta will have to pay the freight.

And if what went around has now come around and bitten the Alberta Tories on their exposed posteriors, well, it's hard to feel much sympathy for them.

Indeed, the only person whom comes out of this whole sorry affair looking better than before is the Cookie Monster himself, Stephen Duckett.

Duckett, the first CEO of AHS, tightened up practices in the Alberta health care system to ensure there was reasonable justification for executive expense claims. It's largely thanks to Duckett Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne can now say the problem has been fixed.

And what happened to Duckett, you ask? Oh, he was fired for political reasons too -- although allegedly for being spectacularly rude to a journalist with a cookie -- when he became a lightning rod for the health care failures of the same government under the previous premier, Ed Stelmach.

Cookies all 'round!

+ + +

Speaking of cookies, good luck to Alberta's physicians, who pleaded with the government yesterday to reopen the pay negotiations Mr. Horne shut down last Friday, imposing a four-year settlement on the Alberta Medical Association and telling the docs there would be no further discussions.

Alberta Medical Association President Dr. Michael Giuffre sent a letter to the minister yesterday "calling on government to return to the negotiating table to complete an agreement with Alberta's physicians," as an AMA news release about the letter put it.

The tone of the letter and the news release didn't make it sound as if the physicians are ready to acknowledge the reasons the government pulled the plug on their negotiations. They're still demanding a compulsory arbitration process to reach a deal.

Well, who knows? Maybe Horne will take pity on them now that he's rapped their knuckles. That might be better from the government's perspective than having the docs still stirred up and furious the next time a provincial election rolls around in 2016.

But if he does, you can count on it he'll want assurances from the AMA they will never do anything again like they did last April, when they bought large ads in local newspapers assailing the Conservatives and suggesting between the lines that voters elect the right-wing Wildrose Party in the election a few days later.

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

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