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No buyout for former Alberta Health CFO? Really?

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Chris Eagle

Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Chris Eagle announced categorically in a news release today there will be no buyout for Allaudin Merali, the health care agency's former chief financial officer whose controversial expense account practices in a previous job were at the centre of a storm of controversy last week.

But 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?

And Merali would seem to have a case. After all, Health Minister Fred Horne got up on his hind legs in front of a room full of reporters on Thursday and stated Merali broke no rules when he filed his $346,208 in expenses to the now-defunct Capital Health Region between 2005 and 2008, the time period in which CBC investigative journalist Charles Rusnell was writing about in his shocking report.

Moreover, a glance at the expenses revealed by Rusnell on the CBC's website suggest that while Merali's dining habits were at once extravagant and cheap, many others were legitimate by any measure.

Saying there will be no severance package for Merali may be a great way to throw a bucket of cold water on a controversy that is otherwise sure to keep smouldering for a while yet, but how is it going to save taxpayers a dime if we have to finance a long legal battle with the man that, ultimately, AHS and the taxpayers are unlikely to win?

The only way this is going to work is if Merali agrees to it. How likely is that?

If Horne had it right when he stated Merali's 2005-2008 expenses were properly submitted in accordance with the CHR's rules, and were duly signed off by the CHR's chief executive, Sheila Weatherill, that would seem to make Merali's case. Weatherill also stated in her letter when she resigned from the AHS board last week that Capital Health had in place "appropriate expenditure policies that were consistent with other public sector organizations."

My speculation may prove to be wrong. Perhaps there is some reason Merali can be persuaded to give up half a million dollars for three months' work that he is -- on the face of it -- legally entitled to demand. But it is said here this is a stalling tactic to suppress further reporting of what can only be called a scandal, and perhaps to negotiate a slightly less expensive deal with Merali if he's prepared to take a partial payment now rather than the whole thing later.

For the time being, expect everyone involved in this fiasco to insist they can say nothing more because the matter is being investigated, or, later, before the courts.

Meanwhile, the AHS news release also said Merali's expenses during his latest three months of employment in Alberta's health system will be subject to an independent forensic audit.

That's very well, but where will we be if that audit reveals Merali obeyed the new and tighter AHS rules now in place, a positive legacy of the much-maligned Stephen Duckett's tenure as CEO, just as he is said by the health minister to have abided by the apparently more loosy-goosey rules that prevailed under Weatherill's leadership at Capital Health?

We'll be out the cost of the forensic audit, naturally, but Merali's case for his buyout will have been strengthened.

Moreover, given some of the things that have been said about Merali in the past few days by some of the most powerful politicians in this province, the former CFO may well have a credible defamation case as well. He could certainly argue that his future earning capacity has been significantly reduced by things that have been said about him by politicians who cannot prove them in a court of law!

Are we taxpayers going to end up paying the potential plaintiffs' legal expenses in a future defamation case as well?

Meanwhile, the independent forensic audit of Merali's expenses in the past three months, since he joined AHS, will not tell us anything about what other Capital Health officials were claiming as expenses back between 2005 and 2008.

Taxpayers can rest absolutely assured, however, that Freedom of Information requests for the expense claims submitted by Weatherill and other Capital Health executives have now been filed by various news organizations. AHS may be able to stall for months, as they did with Rusnell's original filing for Merali's expenses, but they are unlikely to be able to stall forever.

Alberta taxpayers are not very happy with Merali's expense accounts, that is for sure. Indeed, it has been said here before that if this had come out before the April 23 election, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith would be premier of Alberta today.

But Albertans are less concerned with the state of a particular executive’s expense account, or what Merali and Horne had for dinner when they dined together at Jack's Grill in 2005, than they are about the moral and ethical state of the province's health care system.

If the rules allowed Merali's expenses as Horne insisted last week, then it would seem that Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman has had it right all along, and that what is needed is an independent judicial inquiry into the Alberta health care system.

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

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