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Christy Clark’s Conflicting Stories, and Five Takeaways from the Health Firing Report

Damning report by ombudsperson still leaves questions.

Andrew MacLeod 10 Apr

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Premier Christy Clark’s memory about the wrongful 2012 health firings appears to have improved some time after she testified under oath for the ombudsperson office’s investigation into what went wrong.

Adrian Dix, the MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway pointed out the inconsistency.

Twice in the 487-page report Misfire: The 2012 Ministry of Health Employment Terminations and Related Matters, which Ombudsperson Jay Chalke released Thursday, Clark is paraphrased saying she didn’t recall being briefed on the firings.

“Premier Clark did not have a specific recollection of being briefed on the matter prior to the terminations,” the report said on page 135.

And a little later on page 157, in a section making it clear the decision to fire the employees was made by the deputy minister of health, it said, “Premier Clark did not recall ever being briefed about the decision to terminate the employees.”

That’s a different answer than Clark gave reporters on Friday when asked whether she should have asked more questions.

“I did ask a lot of questions at the time,” Clark said. “As I said before, the assurances that we all received were that these were absolutely justified and the right thing to do.”

Questions to Chalke’s office did not receive an immediate response.

Here are five more things worth noting in the wake of the report:

1. Uninformed ministers and accountability

Clark also said Friday that it would be wrong for politicians to be involved in hiring and firing, so it’s proper that Kim Henderson, deputy minister to the premier and head of the public service, is taking the lead on apologies and making restitution to the people affected.

But one of the things that stands out in the report is that in 2012 it fell to a politician, then-health minister Margaret MacDiarmid, to announce the suspensions and investigation that led to the firings.

According to the report, MacDiarmid learned about the firings the day before they were announced and was not briefed on the background or the internal debate raging on whether or not the press release should mention that the government had notified the RCMP about its suspicions.

“The firing decisions, I think had already been made,” the report quoted her saying. “Nobody ever talked to me about, you know, should we fire these people or shouldn’t we.”

She said she followed the lead of her deputy minister, Graham Whitmarsh. “I just remember it being presented to me as a fait accompli.”

The report observed “She believed that she had to be accountable for what had gone wrong. However, it is clear that at the press conference, and in subsequent media appearances, she was operating on very little information.”

So while cabinet ministers (who are paid more than $150,000 a year) should not be involved in hiring and firing, it appears their proper role is to stand in front of the press and say whatever it is they are told to say without doing their own diligence on whether what they are saying is remotely true.

2. The premier’s stop-smoking program and the firings

Many of the people who were fired, or working on contracts that were cancelled, had roles providing the government with information about what drugs should be funded based on evidence of their benefits and risks. The ombudsperson’s report makes clear that there were divisions in the ministry on the research and that support for evidence-based decision-making rose and fell over time.

The decision to fund two drugs that can be prescribed to help people quit smoking happened another way. Clark promised during her 2011 leadership run that the province would pay for them for anyone who wanted them.

The drugs, which have been the subject of safety warnings that include an increased risk of suicide, have been controversial and the subject of lawsuits.

In 2015, health policy researcher and author Alan Cassels told The Tyee that a government briefing note showed the decision to pay for the anti-smoking drugs was political, not based on evidence. “It’s got the camouflage of a science-based decision, but clearly the recommendation is, ‘Let’s do this because the premier’s already announced it.’”

The ombudsperson’s report mentions the smoking cessation program several times, most of them because Roderick MacIsaac was working on a method of evaluating its effectiveness before he was wrongly fired. MacIsaac later killed himself.

But the report doesn’t mention that Clark had promoted the project and there’s no indication whether investigators asked Clark about it when she was under oath. Several of the people who were fired, as well as the NDP, have called for a public inquiry where full transcripts of interviews would be available.

The legislation governing Chalke’s office requires that investigations be conducted in private and he has defended that privacy as a strength of his process.

But the smoking cessation program is just one example of where the public interest might have been better served if there was a record of what investigators asked and what they were told.

3. Damage to the wider research community

News stories have focused on the seven employees who were fired, and researcher Bill Warburton, who had a $1-a-year contract with the ministry. But the ombudsperson reports that the damage to the wider research community was extensive.

At the top of the list are Colin Dormuth and Mark Isaacs, two researchers who had contracts with the health ministry and whose access to data was frozen despite the fact there was no evidence either had done anything wrong.

Chalke recommended that Isaacs receive compensation of $100,000 and Dormuth $50,000.

“Mr. Isaacs, a long-time, highly regarded and trusted contractor, was very badly treated by the ministry even though his conduct was completely proper which was apparent at the time,” Chalke’s report said.

The government was unreasonable in how it dealt with contractors Isaacs, Dormuth and Bill Warburton, the report said.

“All of these contractors were told that they were the subject of the Ministry of Health investigation, but none was provided with adequate notice of the allegations against them or with the particulars about their impugned conduct, and none was given a fair opportunity to respond to the ministry’s concerns,” it said.

The long time it took the government to address the issues — five years from the initial complaint until last week’s apology — damaged their professional standing and reputations, it said.

Chalke also recommended establishing a fund of at least $250,000 for payments to people who worked with three of the groups that had been doing research for the government until the firings. “Because of the investigation, these individuals not only lost their direct income, but they were deliberately prevented from accessing ministry data, which impacted their ability to obtain gainful future employment in areas of expertise, some for a lengthy period of time.”

4. When does silence become a coverup?

By December 2013, government officials knew the firings were a mistake, but for another 10 months they didn’t publicly acknowledge the errors or launch a review to find out what had gone wrong.

“Deputy Minister of Health Stephen Brown was meeting with John Dyble, deputy minister to the premier,” Chalke’s report said. “They called the premier’s executive director of Communications and Issues Management, Ben Chin, into the meeting to tell him that there would likely be a number of settlements with terminated employees over the following year, which would need to be managed from a communications perspective.”

Chin raised the possibility of bringing in a third-party to review the matter, but the government didn’t act on it until October, after MacIsaac’s sister Linda Kayfish held a press conference with the NDP’s support.

Dix said it was wrong for the officials not to tell the public when they realized there had been a mistake. “That’s a coverup. When you know it’s false and you continue to proceed in the same manner, that’s a coverup. By the people closest to the premier, that’s a coverup.”

Chin and Dyble were among premier Clark’s closest advisers, Dix said. “There’s no buffer between Ben Chin and the premier. No buffer between John Dyble and the premier.”

That failure to come clean speaks to a lack of character on the part of the government, he said.

5: Grievance procedure failed fired unionized employees

The ombudsperson’s recommendations include reopening the grievance procedures for the three fired employees who were members of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, MacIsaac, Dave Scott and Ramsay Hamdi.

MacIsaac’s grievance was opened before he committed suicide and completed after he died. It ended with the payment of three days wages to his estate.

Scott and Hamdi did worse in the grievance process. “Mr. Scott and Mr. Hamdi’s grievances were resolved without reinstatement of the employees or any financial compensation for lost wages, lost opportunity or for damages for the manner of dismissal,” the report said.

Since the three were unionized, their only recourse was through the grievance process, rather than the courts.

And the union, for its part, worked on the assumption that the government had grounds to fire the employees. “[It] was reliant on the government’s assertions that it had indeed found evidence of misconduct and had done so through an appropriate and fair process,” the report found.

Had the process taken longer, the fired union members might have done better, it said. “All of the grievances were settled before the ministry recognized that there were significant flaws in the manner in which the investigation was carried out.”

Former BCGEU president Darryl Walker defended the union’s involvement in responding to a question from The Tyee on the Voice of BC TV program in 2014. “I don't know about being outgunned,” he said at the time. “We have legal folks that can do the job.”  [Tyee]

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