Opposition New Democrats hammered the government during Question Period on Thursday, saying a government review underway into the controversial 2012 Health Ministry firings is designed to avoid getting at the truth.
"If we're going to get to the bottom of this, surely we have to find out who did what and why they did it," said John Horgan, the leader of the NDP, in the legislature. "Isn't it true that this review is designed to protect the premier and her deputy minister, not to protect the public interest?"
The government-ordered review, announced Oct. 3, is to look at what led to the sudden firings of at least seven ministry employees in September 2012. The firings led to five wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuits, a union grievance on behalf of three fired employees, a freeze on some research contracts, and a suicide.
Premier Clark and senior officials have conceded that the government overreacted in at least some of the firings. Three of the lawsuits have been settled, some of the former employees have received apologies and two have returned to work for the ministry.
In the legislature on Thursday, Horgan said government had "besmirched" the people who were fired. "They dragged those individuals through the mud, they leaked information to the media, and they suggested an RCMP investigation was underway."
Treatment was 'heavy-handed'
In response, Lake said the government has acknowledged that it made mistakes. "We have said that in some cases, some individuals were treated in a heavy-handed manner, and we apologize for that," the minister told the legislature.
"That is why we have set up a review by an independent person to look at the HR policies that were carried out, to ensure that public servants are treated fairly with the HR processes that are in place."
Officials from the Public Service Agency, which was heavily involved in the 2012 firings, crafted the current review into its own actions, The Tyee reported. The government has also hired employment lawyer Marcia McNeil to investigate, saying her work will be independent.
"Ms. McNeil has been retained to conduct a thorough investigation," Clark said in response to Horgan. "We are all looking very much forward to those results, and we'll certainly have more to say about that when she reports."
She later added, "The member is ready to try and tear apart the results and the comments of the report before it's even been released. I think we would all be wise to let Ms. McNeil do her work and wait until we see the results of that report. I'm sure, at that point, he will find ample reason to tear it apart then."
That report was originally due Oct. 31, but the government extended the deadline to Dec. 19.
The Tyee reported yesterday that letters and emails show Graham Whitmarsh, who was deputy health minister at the time of the firings, believed the review puts both the head of the Public Service Agency, Lynda Tarras, and the deputy to the premier, John Dyble, in conflicts of interest since they were involved in the 2012 decisions.
In the legislature, Horgan cited an email Whitmarsh wrote to Tarras, outlining the former official's concern that Dyble's involvement in the review represented a conflict.
"The deputy minister to the premier, John Dyble, is seriously conflicted in this matter," he said, quoting from Whitmarsh's email. "You and I, both individually and together, briefed John on many occasions during the course of the investigation... He was involved in some of the key decisions and the timing of the key events."
Outside the legislature, Horgan repeated his criticism of Dyble's involvement in the review. He said Dyble and Tarras crafted its terms to shift the blame for anything found to have gone wrong.
"At the root of this issue is Mr. Dyble," said Horgan. "We're not going to get to the bottom of it if Mr. Dyble, the guy at the centre of it, is the guy writing the rules."
Dyble has been away from work since early November. A government official said Dyble would be away for health reasons until January.
On Thursday, Horgan called the review a "sham." The documents The Tyee revealed show the government is "not interested in apportioning blame for one of the most atrocious acts in the history of the public service in British Columbia," he said outside the legislature.
"It's a media strategy, not a response to public interest. That's what's so offensive about this."
Clark was unavailable to the media Thursday.
Prior to Question Period, Lake refused to answer The Tyee's questions about Whitmarsh's allegation that the review is designed to fail. Afterwards, he refused to meet with any media to talk about the issue.
Horgan said he believes an outside review or investigator is needed, perhaps a special prosecutor.
"Surely to goodness the premier recognizes that everyone around her is up to their neck in this file. Wouldn't it be more appropriate for her to do the right thing and find someone outside of her band of travellers to look at this most despicable case that involved the lives of eight dedicated British Columbians?" Horgan told the legislature.
Whitmarsh, who lost his job in 2013 and received some $400,000 in severance payments, has said he is yet to decide whether he will participate in McNeil's review, but that he would welcome a full, independent investigation by the auditor general.