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Something hits the Alberta fan: Allaudin and his wonderful expense account revealed by CBC

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Allaudin Merali

One is practically struck dumb by the astonishing CBC revelation that the Chief Financial Officer of Alberta's massive single public health care agency was once accustomed to spending public money on his expense account as if there were no tomorrow.

Indeed, after yesterday's revelation by the only investigative journalist still gainfully employed in that field in Western Canada that Allaudin Merali submitted expense claims for such items as fine wines, succulent gourmet meals and repairs and upgrades to his foreign-made luxury automobile totalling $346,208 to the old Capital Health Region between January 2005 and August 2008, there was no tomorrow.

Leastways, Merali's career with Alberta Health Services, which took over the operations of the Capital Health Region in May 2008, was abruptly terminated mid-afternoon by the top bosses of the health behemoth, which is Canada's fifth largest employer.

Back in the day when all this was apparently going on, by the way, Merali was CFO of Capital Health at an annual salary of $487,000 a year, give or take. Despite that healthy income, apparently no item was too picayune to escape inclusion in his busy expense account. Tea and a muffin? A bottle of soda? Minor parking fees? In they went!

Yesterday's soothing AHS press release that announced Merali's unexpected departure -- which is sure to be a comfortable one, with a rich payout euphemistically referred to in the AHS statement as "a severance in accordance with the terms of his employment contract" -- went to great lengths to assure taxpayers the expenses were nevertheless legitimate.

“Mr. Merali's responsibilities in previous roles in health care included developing relationships with external partners, businesses and service providers and acting as an official representative in numerous meetings and functions. This included hosting events as well as representing the organization locally, nationally and internationally," the news release urged readers to understand.

"These were an integral and necessary part of his duties," we were assured by Acting AHS Chief Executive Chris Mazurkewich, who is normally AHS's executive VP and chief operating officer, while CEO Chris Eagle was enjoying a hitherto quiet vacation somewhere far enough away not to have to put in an appearance.

Still, notwithstanding the complete legitimacy of these expenses large and small -- which are thoroughly set out in the CBC story by investigative journalist Charles Rusnell, the man whose Freedom of Information request caused Merali's well-appointed house of cards to tumble -- the province-wide health agency quickly determined that the discovery "will detract from his ability to act as AHS' Chief Financial Officer…" And thus it was… Allaudin, be gone!

It is known that after his departure from Capital Health, Merali moved to Ontario where his expense accounts as a consultant for EHealth Ontario, the government agency with the job of implementing that province's electronic health records system, also made uncomfortable headlines.

It is not known if Merali's expense accounting habits continued after his return to Alberta Health Services -- although it is safe to assume that question will be asked at this morning's news conference by Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne, at which pandemonium is certain to reign.

So what conclusions can we draw at this early moment in a story that is sure to linger uncomfortably for a long time? Here are just a few:

- Very few people involved will escape embarrassment for something certain to outrage large segments of the taxpaying public. Indeed, it is fair to ask, how could this have been allowed to happen? Sheila Weatherill, once the well-paid CEO of Capital Health and back again as a member of the AHS Board, signed off on these expenses. Horne, back in the day as a health care consultant, enjoyed a nice meal on Merali's tab -- which means your tab and mine, baby!

- Indeed, it is fair to say that if this had been revealed before the April 23 Alberta election, Danielle Smith would be premier of Alberta today! Smith, the leader of the Opposition Wildrose Party, was of course beaten by Premier Alison Redford and her Progressive Conservatives, in large part on the premier's promise to preserve and protect Alberta's public health care system -- though surely this wasn't the kind of thing voters had in mind.

- Friends and foes of public health care alike will see arguments for their positions in this mess. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this kind of thing is why our public health care system costs so much. Surely it indicates that the superstition public sector managers must be paid and babied like corporate bosses has to end. Good people can be found who will run sophisticated organizations well out of a sense of public service and not bill their muffins and luxury car repairs to the taxpayer.

- And Charles Rusnell, who broke this story and many others like it, will never win the National Newspaper Award he deserves. Why is that? Well, he doesn't work for a newspaper any more, does he? Rusnell works for the "state broadcaster" that Canadian Conservatives would dearly love to destroy -- and you can see why! The Edmonton Journal got him and many other talented journalists off its payroll long ago.

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

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