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Health Ministry Mum on Fired Worker's Rehiring

Robert Hart was among seven people fired in 2012 as part of still-murky gov't investigation.

By Andrew MacLeod 7 Mar 2014 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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While Robert Hart gets his job back, three other non-union health ministry employees terminated during the 2012 investigation continue to pursue their own wrongful dismissal claims in court against the government.

The British Columbia health ministry this week rehired a worker it fired a year and a half ago as part of a major investigation, but the minister responsible declined to discuss what the reversal means.

"The person was rehired after an extensive investigation and work on the part of the ministry and the information and privacy commissioner, so it's a personnel matter, so I'm not going to say much more than that," said Terry Lake, who became minister in June, when asked about Robert Hart's reinstatement.

The Tyee reported this week that Hart was fully rehired and is dropping his wrongful dismissal and defamation case against the government.

"Mr. Hart relies on the fact of full reinstatement as a demonstration of the government's continuing confidence in him, as a loyal and dedicated public servant with over 29 years service," Hart's lawyer Robert Gill wrote in an email.

A notice of claim filed on March 11, 2013 in the British Columbia Supreme Court alleged the government fired Hart without just cause or notice, then repeatedly defamed him in press releases and news stories.

The reinstatement also puts in a new light the decision by the BCGEU in September not to further pursue the grievances of its three members who were fired at the same time.

Hart was among seven people the government terminated in 2012 during an investigation that former health minister Margaret MacDiarmid said involved alleged potential conflicts of interest, contracting and responsible data management.

Asked if Hart's rehiring was an admission ministry officials had been too hasty when firing people in 2012, Lake said, "I'm not going to say that. It's a personnel matter, it's been dealt with by the ministry and that's all I'm going to say."

Former BCGEU members stay fired

The others fired included three BCGEU members: Ramsay Hamdi, a senior economist in the utilization health care and risk management branch, David Scott, a senior researcher in the analysis branch, and co-op student Roderick MacIsaac.

The BCGEU filed grievances on behalf of the three, but when the process wrapped up six months ago without going to arbitration, not one received their job back.

MacIsaac, who committed suicide three months after losing his job, was posthumously awarded pay for three days, the amount of time he'd had left in his co-op appointment. MacIsaac was working on an assessment of the province's controversial decision to pay for anti-smoking treatments, something Premier Christy Clark promised during her campaign to lead the BC Liberal party.

At least one of the others was provided with a reference letter that detailed his work experience at the ministry and described his departure as a retirement.

The Tyee sent a list of questions to the BCGEU about why non-union employee Hart was successful in getting reinstated while the BCGEU members were not, and what message the discrepancy might send to other union members.

"The BCGEU deals with thousands of legal matters, including grievances, every year," said spokesperson Holly Reid in an emailed statement. "We are bound by strict confidentiality and privacy rules concerning grievances. They prohibit us from commenting on these grievances, whether ongoing or concluded. We also do not comment on legal cases that do not concern our members."

She concluded, "We will not be commenting any further on this matter."

Union not 'outgunned': Walker

When BCGEU president Darryl Walker appeared on Shaw TV's Voice of B.C. in October, he answered a question about whether the union had done enough to fight the health ministry terminations and if the government had more resources than the union for these kinds of battles.

"I don't know about being outgunned," he said. "We have legal folks that can do the job."

He quickly transitioned to talking about the union's problems with the labour code and how long it takes to get grievances heard and moved through arbitration. "We are very much frustrated by a process that allows employers to delay, delay, delay, refuse to give information, vital information," he said.

"I think in the legal system, they'd be called to account by the judicial system and they would provide that information," he said. "But in the labour system, it's much more difficult."

Besides Hart, three other non-union health ministry employees were terminated during the 2012 investigation: Malcolm Maclure, a researcher with ties to the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria; Rebecca Warburton, a co-director of research and evidence development in the pharmaceutical services division; and Ron Mattson, a special projects manager who worked on drug intelligence in the PharmaCare branch.

Each, as well as researcher Bill Warburton, filed their own claims in court against the government. In his case, Warburton alleged the firings were a "bad faith" attack on research that exposes the harmful effects of pharmaceutical drugs, and were aimed at protecting the profits of donors to the BC Liberal Party.

When asked about Warburton's allegations, Minister Lake said, "I think that's ridiculous."

The earliest any of the four remaining cases -- Warburton's and those of the three non-union health ministry employees -- is likely to proceed to hearings is October, if the parties don't reach settlements sooner.

The minister at the time of the firings, Margaret MacDiarmid, lost her seat in the May 2013 election. The deputy minister at the time, Graham Whitmarsh, was replaced by Stephen Brown as part of a post-election shuffle of cabinet ministers and deputies.

While the Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner and the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP each issued reports on the case last June, the health ministry is yet to release its own report into its investigation.

The RCMP, which MacDiarmid said 18 months ago was involved in the investigation, is waiting to receive the government's report before it decides how to proceed.  [Tyee]

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