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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Time to move on from old Alberta Health expense claims? Not just yet, thanks, says former CFO

| December 15, 2012
Allaudin Merali

Former Alberta Health Services Chief Financial Officer Allaudin Merali yesterday issued a stout defence of the propriety of his conduct in a previous job as CFO of the Capital Health Region.

Merali's personal response to a statement issued Thursday by AHS Board Chair Stephen Lockwood, which defended the expense account practices of other AHS executives, amounts to a scathing commentary on the way the former CFO was treated when he was fired Aug. 1 after a CBC report outlined his expenses in his previous CFO role at Capital Health.

In his official AHS statement, Lockwood said of the other executives that "the individuals concerned filed expense claims with the information they had available following the standards and expectations of the time."

"In my mind, the integrity of these executives is not in question," Lockwood added.

So how is his case any different, asked Merali in his personal statement -- leaving unspoken the obvious answer that he was hastily fired on Aug. 1 because the CBC report had embarrassed the prickly government of Premier Alison Redford, which was already under siege on a variety of fronts.

Lockwood's commentary about the other executives was fair and should apply to him as well, Merali said in his statement, which was sent to Alberta Diary and several journalists from a Gmail address.

"I cannot accept that my past expenses are held up to a different standard and reported in the media without context and without regard to simple fairness, so as to cast implicit doubts on my integrity," the Merali letter states.

Lockwood's commentary "would also be a fair comment on my own expenses," Merali said. "The standards today at AHS are tighter, and I was fully committed to abiding by those standards when I was hired as Chief Financial Officer of AHS."

As AHS itself reported in its Aug. 1 media release, Merali also stated, "my expenses were related to legitimate travel and hosting, as well as attending events nationally and internationally, and they complied with the standards in place at the time.

"There was no attempt on my part to gain personal benefit for myself, my wife, or anyone else with whom I was associated," he said. "I expensed nothing for myself beyond travel expenses that were normal for my job at the time. The imputation that I simply lived a high life at the taxpayer's expense is an invention of sheer malice."

Among the many points in Merali's personal statement were the following:

-    The "butler" services of which much has been made were for "catering staff who helped serve food at business receptions held at my home."

-    His notorious car phone was expected as part of his job and expensed properly.

-    On the few occasions when his wife traveled with him, all her costs were properly reimbursed.

-    Costs attributed to him by AHS in August were overstated by more than $35,000.

Merali also lauded the work done by Capital Health during his time with that organization, including "development of a robust financial costing system," "millions of dollars in savings on procurement," and "obtaining approval for several major capital projects, some of which have recently been completed, to improve access and provide quality care to Albertans."

Regarding the provenance of this statement, which is dated Dec. 13 and was received by media and this blog on the 14th, it must be said that I cannot prove to the standards of a courtroom it was in fact written by Merali. However, it is hard to imagine anyone else taking the time and effort to write a defence of this nature. I emailed Merali seeking more information -- and a photograph that is in focus -- and he politely declined further comment.

It's been said in this space several times that Alberta Health Services and the Redford Government that pulls its strings left Alberta taxpayers wide open to a costly lawsuit when they tossed Merali under the bus because of the embarrassment caused by the CBC report.

Such an outcome was made more likely when AHS announced categorically on Aug. 6 that there would be no buyout for Merali under his employment agreement -- despite the important facts that his controversial expense accounts were submitted while he worked for a previous employer and that AHS has never introduced a shred of evidence he wasn't obeying the rules, as ridiculous as they seem to have been, either when he worked at Capital Health or at AHS.

As Alberta Diary asked on Aug. 6, "are we seriously expected to believe a man who would claim a single loonie plugged into a parking meter is going to say goodbye to a buyout of $500,000 without a fight?"

There's nothing in Merali's letter yesterday that suggests anything different.

News reports Thursday quoted Lockwood saying it’s time to move on from this fiasco and he didn't want to waste any more money auditing other executives' former expenses. Merali won't be forced to pay any expenses back, he added.

Notwithstanding Opposition protests in the Legislature, bet on it that’s because AHS has been advised it could never succeed at such a recovery effort in a court of law.

Move on? Not just yet, thanks very much, Merali seems to be saying.

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

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