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November 22, 2014

Health Firings Cover-Up

Is the government involved in a cover-up on why in September 2012 it fired 7 pharmaceutical researchers, cancelled 2 contractor's contracts and halted valuable research? Were the firings a ham-fisted response to well-intentioned researchers who were trying to expedite their work by cutting corners on red tape or were they a laser guided response that exploited a complaint so as to purge a unit that proved too troublesome for the tastes of some pharmaceutical companies, a theory mentioned by drug policy researcher Alan Cassels.

Dismissed just three days before his work as a co-op PhD student was to conclude, Roderick McIsaac committed suicide December 2012. In the legislature on October 8, 2014 Premier Clark finally expressed sympathy to his family and said: "it was very appropriate that government apologize for what the Health Minister I think appropriately characterized as very heavy-handed actions." However, in the same statement the Premier claimed "there was a serious breach of the publicís privacy" when records were copied unencrypted to a USB stick, thereby qualifying her apology.

In light of the Premier's comments, former Ministry of Health Deputy Minister Graham Whitmarsh sensed he was being setup to take the fall for the firings. Through his lawyer he released 37 pages of documents to Andrew MacLeod, legislative reporter for The Tyee who wrote about Whitmarsh's concerns. Whitmarsh is accusing the government review of not being independent because of real and apparent conflicts of interest by those involved in drafting the terms of reference for the review. The response to Whitmarsh's lawyer was written by the Deputy Attorney General on behalf of government saying the review is limited and is not a fault-finding mission. That response led the NDP to say the review is "a sham designed to protect the premier."

The wholesale gutting of a department is unprecedented, especially when a normal response to their alleged errors would simply be a memo from an assistance deputy or perhaps the deputy instructing the staff where they went wrong and what to do in the future. Firing someone without escalating discipline and prior warning is bizarre. The government's October 3, 2014 news release on its apology to MacIsaac's family included a backgrounder with a timeline on events beginning in March 28, 2012 when a complaint was made to the Auditor General about alleged inappropriate practices. On October 21st Andrew MacLeod wrote: "Thanks to hundreds of emails leaked to The Tyee, we can now tell you that the concerns appear to have been driven by Alana James, a lawyer who worked as a senior health information advisor in the ministry." If it is true that James is the person who approached the Auditor General's office in March 2012, then any complete independent review of the subsequent events would have to include an interview with her. Given the terms of reference for the review it is not certain that will happen.

When the Whitmarsh papers were used in question period (video) on November 20th the Premierís response was to wait for the release of the report on December 19th. Given the terms of reference, it is certain that key questions will remain despite the best efforts of respected lawyer Marcia McNeil.

Either through out-of-court settlements or the grievance procedure, actions arising from all but two of the firings and contract cancellations have been settled. Actions by Rebecca and William Warburton remain outstanding. If they are resolved out-of-court, the public may lose its last chance to see evidence disclosed on a disgraceful incident the government would just as soon cover-up.