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Emails Shed Light on Origins of Health Ministry Probe, Firings

Gov't lawyer raised alarms about legality of contracts, locked horns with superior.

By Andrew MacLeod 21 Oct 2014 | TheTyee.ca

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

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Former BC health minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced a series of firings of drug researchers in 2013. Her successor, Terry Lake, has since acknowledged 'heavy-handed' actions by his government.

As the British Columbia government backtracks on an investigation that led to seven firings from the health ministry two years ago, questions remain unanswered about how the case got rolling in the first place.

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.

The emails show that James raised alarm in 2012 that she was routinely being asked to approve of contracts that she believed were illegal, and that she said for more than a year top officials ignored her concerns. She threatened to take those concerns to someone outside the ministry if higher-ups didn't act.

Besides the firings, the investigation resulted in the freezing of research contracts and five court cases for wrongful dismissal and defamation. Three of those cases have now been settled out of court, with two people returning to work for the ministry and a third receiving a settlement and having his name cleared.

A co-op student who was suspended three days before his work term ended and later fired, Roderick MacIsaac, 46, committed suicide in December 2012. He had been designing a way to evaluate a smoking cessation program that had been a pet initiative of Premier Christy Clark.

Both Clark and Health Minister Terry Lake recently apologized to MacIsaac's family. Lake has said the ministry in some cases overreacted and was heavy-handed, and the Public Service Agency has engaged employment lawyer Marcia McNeil to review what happened ahead of the firings with a report due Oct. 31.

"We have learned lessons about rushing to judgment," Lake said in the legislature on Oct. 20.

Note to file

A large number of internal health ministry emails sent to The Tyee provide a window into what went on in the ministry in 2012 as the investigation got rolling.

In a May 7, 2012 email labelled "Note to File -- meeting with Manjit / conflict of interest and legal concerns about MoH," health ministry lawyer James described a meeting with her direct supervisor Manjit Sidhu, the assistant deputy minister of finance and corporate services at the health ministry.

According to the note, James did not trust Sidhu or other health officials to take the concerns seriously.

"Ultimately I want MoH to comply with the law on how we deal with this," she wrote that she told Sidhu. "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 – to Treasury Board, or the Comptroller General for example... I have to take it outside of the MoH if I can't get someone within to believe me, then I would follow the law."

Sidhu didn't seem to like what he heard, she wrote.

"I felt that Manjit became very aggressive at this point and I felt threatened," the document said. "He raised his voice and very forcefully told me I was absolutely wrong, that I was not supposed to do that, that he Manjit is the person with the authority to make the decisions on how to deal with this, that he will review it and make the decision on what to do, but it was his authority not mine.

"He said he has been doing this work for 25 years and he knows best and if he is supposed to take it to the RCMP he will, he has in the past about other things, but that he makes the determination, not me," she said. "I felt that he was trying to bully me and that he was trying to intimidate me."

The Tyee contacted Sidhu by phone. He said he could not answer questions, but that The Tyee should contact ministry spokesperson Ryan Jabs.

"We will not comment on personnel matters and would caution anyone from making claims or publishing unproven allegations about any of the ministry's staff," Jabs said in an emailed statement in response to detailed questions.

Concerns dismissed

James said her concern remained that the ministry's contracts complied with the law, she said. She named seven senior ministry officials besides Sidhu that she had contacted in the past.

"I have not felt it was dealt with appropriately," she wrote. "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, so it's ok for now; that my job was on the line; that this is the way it has always been."

She had taken her concerns as high as the associate deputy minister level, she wrote. "I questioned and asked these people if they were telling people higher than them and following the chain of command and everyone said to drop it," the document said.

James wrote that Sidhu told her everyone she had complained to was saying the government's policy should comply with the law, but that she disagreed with him. "I said no, they were saying policy trumped the law and government could do what it wants even if it breaches the law and legislation."

It is also clear from the note to file that Sidhu wanted to see more evidence from James before acting.

"He said that the situation was very serious, that reputation and careers were at stake, so we had to be absolutely sure before we did anything further," she wrote. "That if we just made accusations without first confirming everything, he and I could be changed [sic] with slander."

James wrote that she hoped she was wrong, "But that based on what evidence we do have I think we are obligated to take this further so that the issue can be looked at and the questions answered."

She wrote that Sidhu said she would not get fired for raising the issue, but left her with the impression that they would find another reason to fire her. "I got teary-eyed a number of times throughout the meeting – I was feeling bullied, threatened, that he was not going to comply with the law on this. Manjit left the room briefly and brought in a box of Kleenex for me."

Neither Sidhu nor ministry spokesperson Jabs would comment to The Tyee on this email or others.

James no longer works in the ministry.

Sidhu committed to spending as much time as needed to review documents that James would bring him, she wrote. And he later visited James at her desk to check if she was okay and noted that she seemed stressed. "He said that he didn't want me to be stressed, because if I was stressed we would never get this done. I said don't worry about my working on this and moving it forward, that I am focused and committed on doing what is necessary to ensure it is handled correctly."

Contracts considered

James sent her note to file to Deanna Amos, the senior research methodology analyst who had been at the meeting with her.

"I've given a read through and it does seem to sum things up quite well," Amos wrote. "You made a good assessment of the way he came across -- intimidating, bullying... with his mannerisms, his tone, the way he imparted his 'experience' with such matters... ugh."

Amos added, "I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about all of the stuff we have to organize... and it was hard to get my mind shut down enough to fall back asleep."

Other email messages provided to The Tyee show that in the days following James' meeting with Sidhu, officials including Laine Coopsie, senior audit advisor in the health ministry, began looking at various contracts, including ones with the PharmacoEpidemiology Group at UBC, the Alzheimers Drug Therapy Initiative, the Faculty of Medicine at UBC, the Drug Safety and Effectiveness Network, and the Education for Quality Improvement in Patient Care program.

Concerns mentioned in the messages included researchers using data for reasons other than why it was provided, the handling of intellectual property rights, and that researchers with cross appointments were involved at the ministry in writing contracts for universities where they also worked.

Other emails include more detailed outlines of James' concerns. For example, she wrote in a May 11, 2012 email to Coopsie that certain data disclosures to a researcher were illegal under the Pharmacy Operations and Drug Scheduling Act, which said such data were to stay within the ministry. The ministry was making those disclosures, which never should have been made, to outside researchers every week, she wrote.

She also noted that if a person breaks PODSA, the act says that their employer, manager or other superior is deemed to have broken the act.

Intellectual property rights

Several of the emails note that James received pushback from the people involved. In one, for example, she quotes Malcolm Maclure, a researcher who was fired and later rehired after he sued for wrongful dismissal and defamation, telling her that she had no understanding of how research works.

And in a February 2012 email, researcher Rebecca Warburton, who was fired and still has a lawsuit against the ministry continuing, explained her perspective on how certain contracts handled Intellectual Property rights: "This whole arrangement is a special situation, because while the [Faculty of Medicine at UBC] group does this work for the Ministry (under contract) we also want them to be able to publish it -- we want them to have that independence as it's our way of ensuring that the advice they give is seen as objective and unbiased despite the fact the Ministry pays for the work."

The messages also mention that the ministry was sensitive to criticism from competing researchers that some people were getting better access to ministry data than they were.

It is unclear from the messages how the ministry got from the broad concerns raised by James to firing the particular seven people that they did.

When then health minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced the investigation in September 2012, and several suspensions that would later turn into firings, she said it involved contracting, data management and conflicts of interest.

Answering questions in the legislature in early October, the current minister, Terry Lake, said unencrypted health data from 30,000 British Columbians had been given to researchers on thumb drives.

"I have said and will continue to say that some of the actions we took with some of the employees involved were heavy-handed," he said. "For that, I sincerely apologize."

Asked by The Tyee when the concerns about contracting procedures were dropped, he said he wasn't minister at the time and was unsure.

Investigation pushed downwards: Dix

A spokesperson for the health ministry, Ryan Jabs, said both the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the consulting firm Deloitte looked at the ministry's data management, audit and contracting procedures. "Strengthening these systems and processes allowed us to restore contracts and give researchers access to our data once they completed the information security and privacy training."

Adrian Dix, who has followed the issue closely for the NDP, said that Sidhu and two other health assistant deputy ministers, Lindsay Kislock and Barbara Walman, were put in charge of the investigation.

"When you put them in charge it automatically pushes the investigation downward, and that's what happened," Dix said. "They pushed it downward by the way they investigated it."

The firings were based on suppositions that didn't turn out to be true, he said. "They spent millions investigating and they got nothing because there was nothing to get," he said. "The misconduct is overreacting here. There's just no evidence."

The people who were fired, and the agencies whose research contracts were frozen, were doing work that was in the public interest and critical of the pharmaceutical industry, said Dix.

"They targeted this work they didn't like," he said. "We need people to do this work. It's important people understand the work being done was extremely valuable."

The smear continues as the government has taken more than two years to back down from the allegations and resolve the situation, Dix said. "It took them two weeks to clear Clark in 'Quick Wins.' They can work to a deadline when they want to."  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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