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VIEW: Time to appoint a special prosecutor on healthcare firings

Call it what you want, bad damage control or poor deflection, but one thing is certain: the Ministry of Health's attempts to put those 2012 firings behind them aren't working out so well.

Despite the ministry's efforts, there are a few indisputable facts: seven firings, one suicide, three lawsuits settled by the ministry for wrongful dismissal, two lawsuits outstanding, more than $3 million of public funds spent to date and one ongoing police investigation.

It's concerns over possible criminal wrongdoing -- which have been lurking in the shadows of this scandal ever since the story broke -- that just won't go away.

When then health minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced the firings in September 2012, she made a point of underlining that the ministry had asked the RCMP to investigate the allegations which led to the terminations.

Earlier this month, the Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer revealed that the comptroller general's office has been conducting an investigation into "suspected financial improprieties in procurement and contracting procedures in the pharmaceutical research division of the ministry of health," since October 2012.

The findings are to be kept confidential except to "assist RCMP or other law enforcement agency with a criminal investigation or prosecution."

Then late last week, the B.C. government announced that Victoria labour lawyer Marcia McNeil, who is conducting an investigation into another aspect of the scandal, will deliver her final report to the deputy attorney general and not the head of the Public Service Agency as had been planned.

The RCMP has also confirmed that it's still "in communication with the health ministry in respect to the allegations against ministry employees."

Under B.C.'s Crown Counsel Act, special prosecutors can be appointed "when the paramount consideration is the need to maintain public confidence in the administration of criminal justice." If ever there was a case where public confidence has been eroded, this would be one of them.

Appointing a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation doesn't mean that crimes were committed or that charges will be laid, but it gets us past the inherent risk of the government being seen as investigating itself which -- quite frankly -- is the perception now.

Palmer's revelation over the comptroller's investigation is noteworthy for another reason: after two years of stonewalling suddenly the leaks start. And not a trickle, but a deluge.

Last week, in another leak, a new player emerged when "hundreds of emails" were obtained by The Tyee's Andrew MacLeod. According to those emails, concerns over contracting procedures may "have been driven" by Alana James, a lawyer who worked in the health ministry.

In one email dated May 7, 2012, James wrote a 'Note to File' stating: "I have looked at the laws and policy and my interpretation is that we might be supposed to take this external of the MoH now... I have to take it outside of the MoH if I can't get someone within to believe me."

Here's the kicker: according to the B.C. government's official account of events, an anonymous whistleblower notified former auditor general John Doyle's office of contracting irregularities and inappropriate research grant practices on March 28, five weeks before James hit her keypad threatening to go outside of the ministry.

That anonymous whistleblower may have been James, may have not. Immaterial, except on what it says about the government's account.

Based on that same timeline, when James wrote that Note to File, the ministry's financial and corporate services division had completed or was nearing completion of its preliminary inquiry and had already decided on a formal investigation.

Someone, somewhere isn't being entirely honest with someone: James's superiors with her or the government with us.

It's easy to dismiss one or two inconsistencies in an inconsequential file, but this scandal isn't inconsequential and the inconsistencies keep piling up.

Something else James wrote may be far more worrisome than the firings themselves: "I have been told things such as: I don't understand how government works; that it doesn't matter what the legislation says, we have government policy; that it's unfortunate that we don't follow the law but that we plan on changing the legislation at some point so that we will."

A special prosecutor might want to add that to an expanded investigation, because it may very well be the most troubling aspect of a very troubling affair.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

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