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Raj Sherman's startling allegations must be backed up quickly or his credibility will be in smithereens

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Alberta Independent MLA Raj Sherman

It would be fair to say that Raj Sherman needs to back up his startling allegations of serious wrongdoing at the Capital Health Region very quickly if he wishes to retain any credibility.

The Independent MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, once the only physician in the now-doctorless Alberta Conservative caucus, told the Legislature Monday that 250 Albertans have died while awaiting lung surgery and that the province paid "millions" to silence doctors who complained about it.

Hansard, the formal record of the Alberta Legislature, recorded the key part of Sherman's statement in the House as follows: "It has also come to my attention that physicians who raised these issues were either punished or driven out of the province or paid out in millions to buy their silence and the costs buried in the books under the former Capital health region, I'm not surprised that this was never made public."

Also according to Hansard, Sherman told the House that "I've also been told by others that this happened under Minister Mar and the hon. Member for Sherwood Park and that Dr. Trevor Theman of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and Capital health and Sheila Weatherill knew about this. Is the Minister of Health and Wellness aware of this, and will he call the Health Quality Council of Alberta and carry out a fatality review?"

Weatherill was the Chief Executive of the Capital Health Region until it was rolled into Alberta Health Services in May 2008. Gary Mar was health minister under premier Ralph Klein -- and today is widely believed to be on the verge of a serious run for the leadership of the Alberta Conservatives. The Member for Sherwood Park is a reference to Iris Evans, another former Alberta health minister under Klein.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky sensibly observed in an Edmonton Journal story Monday that allegations this serious, made in the Legislature where the speaker has an absolute privilege to say what he will without legal consequences, either need to be substantiated or withdrawn.

In a later story in the same newspaper, Zwozdesky was quoted as saying, "when a member makes those kinds of allegations … he or she ought to be prepared to immediately table the proof, or something that he can stand behind."

That story also quoted an interview by Sherman with a talk-radio station in which the MLA sounded as if he might be backing away from some of his claims: "I have made no comments about bribery or bags of money whatsoever."

A number of consequences now inevitably flow from Sherman's very serious allegations.

First, if Sherman was still harbouring any thoughts of running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, as he suggested on Feb. 20, he can forget about them now.

Second, if Sherman doesn't provide evidence in the House or outside of it (he may argue he needs to keep his sources confidential), the government is likely going to have to arrange an independent audit of the CHR's books or the corrosive damage caused by these allegations will stick in the public mind. Inevitably, that's going to cost taxpayers.

Third, if he or an appropriately independent audit produces no evidence of these allegations in a timely fashion, Sherman's credibility will be blown to smithereens. If that happens -- notwithstanding his popularity last November in the wake of being kicked out of the Conservative caucus for his comments about the premier's handling of the health care file -- it seems unlikely he would stand much chance of being re-elected.

If this happens, Sherman will have made the quickest transition on record from the most popular politician in Alberta to someone incapable of being re-elected. Under such circumstances, it seems highly doubtful that any of the five parties in the Legislature would be interested in having him as a member.

So, how likely is it that these charges are true?

Anything is possible, one supposes, but from a commonsense perspective his allegations seem unlikely.

Massive bureaucracies like the Capital Health Region (and this goes double for Alberta Health Services, which replaced it) have many sins. They are often sclerotic in the extreme when it comes to making decisions, inflexible and tolerant of managerial inefficiency. Such factors are no doubt part of the story of why the Emergency Room crisis in Alberta has grown so severe.

However, the fact is, they tend to be really bad at covering up conspiracies. There are just too many people, too many ears in the hallways, too many loose tongues for a scheme of the sort suggested by Sherman to have escaped discovery this long.

Even if they were so inclined, any CHR managers in a position to have "paid out millions" and then seen to it that the costs were "buried in the books" would surely have known this. And what's more, it seems likely such a cover-up would have been uncovered when the switch was made to Alberta Health Services, which is run to a significant degree by different people.

It just strains credulity -- this blogger's, anyway -- that deadly shenanigans like those suggested by Sherman were going on without notice inside an organization like the CHR.

Given all this, now might be a good time to take down that Facebook group calling on Raj Sherman to join the Alberta NDP's Legislative caucus. It is said with confidence that not all New Democrats supported that idea even back in Sherman's salad days.

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

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