One of the British Columbia Health Ministry employees fired in September as part of a data management and contracting investigation is suing Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid and the province for wrongful dismissal and defamation.
"My dismissal and the statements made by the minister of health have had a devastating impact on my life," Ron Mattson told a Dec. 4 news conference. "The purpose of this lawsuit is to clear my name and restore my reputation."
Mattson, who is also a municipal councilor in View Royal, was one of seven employees the ministry fired or suspended as part of the investigation. The minister and ministry officials never publicly named the employees, but their identities were well known among colleagues. In September The Tyee was first to report their names.
Nor have ministry officials publicly explained the details of the case, other than that it started with an anonymous tip and the investigation concerned potential conflicts of interest, contracting and responsible data management.
MacDiarmid told the media the ministry had been in contact with the RCMP, the Public Service Agency, the office of the comptroller general, the office of the auditor general and the office of the information and privacy commissioner.
"If you guys can tell me what the results of the investigation are, you're doing well," said Chris Siver, a lawyer with Mulroney & Company, who is representing Mattson. "Please advise us."
The Sept. 6 termination letter to Mattson from deputy health minister Graham Whitmarsh was included with Mattson's notice of claim. The letter said Mattson was fired for just cause.
"On June 28, 2012, and in response to a request by a University of Victoria researcher, you arranged for Bill Warburton, an unauthorized contractor, to receive a disc containing confidential data," it said. "Mr. Warburton had not been approved to receive this data and, in fact, his pledge form was not received by the Ministry until approximately two weeks after your attempt to provide him the disc. I note that to date Mr. Warburton has not been approved to receive this data."
The arrangement was "troubling" since Mattson knew as of June 14, 2012 his and others' data access had been suspended, Whitmarsh's letter said. "In subsequent meetings with the investigative team, your only justification for the unauthorized release of this confidential data was that you were unaware that Mr. Warburton's data access had been suspended along with your own during the Ministry's review process," it said.
"This explanation is of grave concern and seems implausible in the circumstances given your lengthy meeting with the Employer on June 14, 2012 as part of that review." The letter added it was incumbent on Mattson to check Warburton's status and whether he was approved to receive the data.
No data given, says Mattson
In his notice of claim, Mattson said he never gave data to Warburton or anyone else and didn't have the signing authority to do anything beyond signing for invoices.
"Mr. Mattson did not have the authority nor discretion nor power to unilaterally provide any confidential data to any person, including Bill Warburton, who was under contract with the University of Victoria," it said.
"At the request of the University of Victoria, Mr. Mattson fulfilled his sole role and duty and did submit an application to the Director of Data Access and Research Services to have Bill Warburton added to a schedule of a contract the government had entered with the University of Victoria called the Information Sharing Agreement as an approved user of the database," it said.
"The Director of Data Access and Research Services and his superiors were the only people who had the discretion and power to grant authorization to access the data," it said. "No personal data was ever delivered by Mr. Mattson to any person."
Mattson did his job in accordance with the law, government policies and the privacy commissioner's guidance, it said. He did his part in helping the government fulfil its contracted obligations, with the full knowledge of his supervisors, it said.
The ministry also fired the director of data access, Bob Hart, by the way. Other employees the ministry fired are Rebecca Warburton, David Scott, Ramsay Hamdi and Roderick MacIsaac.
Malcolm Maclure, a PhD epidemiologist who worked at the ministry and had appointments to UVic and the University of B.C., has filed his own lawsuit for wrongful dismissal and defamation against the government, saying his suspension without pay amounts to constructive dismissal.
Looking for 'real reason' for firing
Mattson, who had been working on the Alzheimer's Drug Therapy Initiative with researchers at UVic, said the information sharing agreement had been in the works for three years. He had submitted Warburton to be added as an approved contractor, but had done nothing unusual or inappropriate on the file, he said.
Asked if he'd been told anything about why ministry officials were concerned about Warburton's access to data, Mattson said, "I have no idea what Dr. Warburton is accused of having done."
The database in question included no identifying patient information and providing it would have allowed the researchers to complete the work the government had contracted them to do, he said.
"I loved my job. I was one of those fortunate people who loved going to work in the morning," Mattson said. "I feel personally betrayed by the government. After 28 years of dedicated service, I feel cheated. I've done nothing wrong, and still I was fired for some unknown reason. My reputation has been destroyed."
He said he still does not know the "real reason" why he was fired. "I remain shocked and humiliated."
The way he was fired makes it unlikely that at 59 years old he'll ever work again in a similar job with similar responsibilities, he said. It has also made his sevice on the View Royal council difficult, he said.
"I've been treated inappropriately by an employer who I've given 28 years of service," he said. "A public apology certainly would be in order."
He said he has never been contacted by the RCMP about this matter.
The Tyee reported on Oct. 2 that the RCMP were in a "holding pattern" waiting for more information from the government. Two recent calls to the RCMP spokesperson on the file, including one Dec. 4, were not returned.
Grievance hearings delayed
The Health Ministry is limited in what it can say at this point, said spokesperson Ryan Jabs in an emailed statement.
"Out of respect for each individual's right to privacy, we have not commented, nor will we confirm publicly any specific personnel information related to employees who were terminated or suspended," he said. "We have never publicly disclosed individuals' names in the media, nor do we intend to."
The government will not comment on legal proceedings while they are in process, he said.
"Our internal investigation continues," he said. "This is a complex investigation and it wouldn't be appropriate to make further comments in the media."
For the three employees who were union members, a grievance is underway. The process has been delayed to a point where hearings are not expected before the May 2013 election.
"The ministry is not solely responsible for scheduling these sessions and we have not delayed them in any way," said Jabs. "Arbitration dates are jointly scheduled by the BCGEU in conjunction with the employer and depends on the availability of legal counsel, witnesses and the arbitrator. The arbitrators are often booked months in advance."
He stressed that the ministry has been extremely cautious in its comments about this matter from the start. "We have noted that information has been reported in the media allegedly related to the details of this file," he said. "This has not been provided by the Ministry of Health and we can neither speak to its accuracy nor comment on its basis."
Mattson, for his part, would have agreed up to a point. A July 25 letter from his lawyers on his behalf to assistant deputy minister Barbara Walman said, "Mr. Mattson would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the delicate way you are handling the communications regarding this issue. The mere fact of Mr. Mattson's suspension has the possibility to irreparably damage his occupational reputation."
It added, "By communicating the fact of his suspension to only those co-workers who may have a direct need to know, you are likely limiting the damage that defamation by innuendo may be doing to his reputation."
The comments the minister made in September and afterwards have done the kind of damage Mattson feared, the notice of claim said. "Dr. MacDiarmid has acted high-handely and with a reckless disregard for the truth."