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Former Senior Gov't Official Won't Participate in Health Firings Review

Graham Whitmarsh cites concerns over review's independence.

By Andrew MacLeod 25 Nov 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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'I remain concerned that the government continues to maintain that this is a thorough and substantive review,' former deputy health minister Graham Whitmarsh said.

The former deputy minister of health who led the ministry in 2012 when at least seven employees were fired said today he won't participate in the government review into those firings because he believes it lacks independence.

Graham Whitmarsh made the announcement in a written statement.

Employment lawyer Marcia McNeil is conducting that review under terms of reference written by Lynda Tarras, who was head of the Public Service Agency until she retired at the end of October.

In the statement, Whitmarsh said he has faith in McNeil's independence -- but can't say the same for the review.

"I believe Ms. McNeil is a credible professional who is in a difficult position trying to complete a review established with an unreasonably restrictive scope and terms of reference," wrote Whitmarsh, who was deputy minister of health until he lost his job in a June 2013 shuffle.

Whitmarsh said he met with McNeil on Nov. 24. "Our meeting confirmed my previous concern regarding the unreasonably narrow limits placed on this review and how they will impact her ability to produce a meaningful report," Whitmarsh wrote.

"While Ms. McNeil may be independent, clearly the review is not," he wrote.

Government overreacted

In September 2012, then-health minister Margaret MacDiarmid, with Whitmarsh at her side, called a news conference to announce the firings and suspensions of seven ministry employees. She said she had asked the RCMP to investigate allegations to do with potential conflicts of interest, contracting and responsible data management.

Since then, the government has admitted it mishandled the affair. The firings affected lives and damaged reputations. One of the fired employees, Roderick MacIsaac, committed suicide. Five wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuits were filed, three of which have now been settled out of court. Two of the people affected have returned to work for the ministry. A third received an apology, as did MacIsaac's family.

However, the government has never publicly accounted for why it fired the health employees in the first place.

In October, Premier Christy Clark and Health Minister Terry Lake said that in some of the firings, the government had overreacted and was heavy handed. The government announced a review -- to be conducted by the Public Service Agency, which engaged McNeil to give it some independence.

Clark said the review would get to the bottom of what had happened.

Last week The Tyee reported that Whitmarsh feared he alone would be blamed for the firings, even though the PSA had been heavily involved in the 2012 actions.

He criticized the Public Service Agency's involvement in the current review, saying Tarras, the agency's head, and her boss, deputy to the premier, John Dyble were both in conflicts of interest due to their involvement in the firings.

Review lacks independence

Today, Whitmarsh said he would not participate in the review. In addition to citing its lack of independence, he expressed concerns about how it would affect ongoing lawsuits and about his lack of access to documents he would need to participate.

"It is apparent to me that there are significant outstanding legal questions relating to the potential interaction between this review and the ongoing legal actions regarding the original investigation," he wrote.

Cases continue that were launched by Rebecca Warburton, who had been a co-director of research and evidence development in the pharmaceutical, and her husband, contractor Bill Warburton.

"I had expected that the government would have resolved these questions prior to initiating any review," wrote Whitmarsh.

"In addition, I am concerned that I may not be able to have unfettered access to the documents I may require in order to participate," he wrote. "It is clear to me that the government still controls access to the documents required to complete the review."

Nor has McNeil been able to get key documents, he wrote. " I am particularly concerned that Ms. McNeil has not been provided a copy of, or access to, the earlier review undertaken by [current deputy health minister] Stephen Brown," he wrote.

"This review is referred to frequently by the government since it allegedly covers the same time period and events, and seems to have resulted in the reversal of some of the actions taken during the original investigation."

Whitmarsh wrote that he would participate in a truly independent review. "I continue to support a genuinely thorough, substantive and independent review by the Auditor General, in which I would participate."

He said he may comment further once McNeil's report is released. That's now scheduled for Dec. 19.

Review dominates Question Period

The New Democratic Party led Question Period on Nov. 25, pressing Lake with questions about Whitmarsh's statements.

NDP leader John Horgan noted that the terms of reference for the review fails to give McNeil the authority to demand anyone to participate.

"How will we get to the bottom of this debacle if we can't compel anyone to speak?" Horgan asked.

Lake replied that the review was designed by the head of the public service -- not politicians. "I would encourage the Opposition members to wait for the contents of the report," he said.

Once it's released, everyone can decide whether it has been comprehensive, he said.

WHITMARSH FULL STATEMENT BELOW

I am issuing this statement following numerous questions regarding my potential participation in the review of the Public Service response to allegations of inappropriate conduct, contracting and data-management practices involving employees and drug researchers for the Ministry of Health in 2012, being undertaken by Ms. Marcia McNeil.

Yesterday I met with Ms. McNeil regarding her review and following this meeting, I have decided not to participate in the ongoing review.

It is apparent to me that there are significant outstanding legal questions relating to the potential interaction between this review and the ongoing legal actions regarding the original investigation. I had expected that the government would have resolved these questions prior to initiating any review.

In addition, I am concerned that I may not be able to have unfettered access to the documents I may require in order to participate. It is clear to me that the government still controls access to the documents required to complete the review. I am particularly concerned that Ms. McNeil has not been provided a copy of, or access to, the earlier review undertaken by Stephen Brown. This review is referred to frequently by the government since it allegedly covers the same time period and events, and seems to have resulted in the reversal of some of the actions taken during the original investigation.

I believe Ms. McNeil is a credible professional who is in a difficult position trying to complete a review established with an unreasonably restrictive scope and terms of reference. Our meeting confirmed my previous concern regarding the unreasonably narrow limits placed on this review and how they will impact her ability to produce a meaningful report. While Ms. McNeil may be independent, clearly the review is not.

I remain concerned that the government continues to maintain that this is a thorough and substantive review. I continue to support a genuinely thorough, substantive and independent review by the Auditor General, in which I would participate.

I may comment further once Ms. McNeil's report is released.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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