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Health Firings: BC Gov't Seeks Probe by Ombudsperson

Critics cite potential conflicts as calls for independent public inquiry unheeded.

By Andrew MacLeod 3 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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BC Health Minister Terry Lake: Wants Ombudsperson to investigate decision to terminate employees and government actions afterwards.

Amid mounting calls for an independent public inquiry into the botched 2012 firings of seven health ministry employees, Health Minister Terry Lake has instead asked a legislature committee to ask the conflicted provincial ombudsperson to investigate.

The Tyee reported last week that Jay Chalke, who became the ombudsperson on July 1, worked most recently as a senior official in the justice ministry. That ministry was closely involved in the firings and their aftermath.

In a July 3 letter to Scott Hamilton, the MLA who chairs the select standing committee on finance and government services, Health Minister Terry Lake wrote, "I would ask the Committee to have the Ombudsperson investigate the events leading up to the decision to terminate the employees, the decision to terminate itself, and the actions taken by government following the terminations, in addition to any other matters he may deem worthy of investigation."

Lake's letter notes that the legislative assembly or any of its committees may at any time refer a matter to the ombudsperson to investigate, and that the ombudsperson has a duty to follow through on that request.

Lake wrote that he was making the request due to the "ongoing public interest and concern" about the firings, concern he said he shares.

Further review needed, says Lake

In late June, having received a report from the province's comptroller general after waiting nearly three years, the RCMP declined to investigate. And a previous investigation by labour lawyer Marcia McNeil found fault with the process that led to the firings, but could not determine who made the key decisions or why.

"In my opinion, a further review of this matter is appropriate and I believe that the Ombudsperson Act makes clear that an investigation led by the Ombudsperson is the proper venue for such an investigation," Lake wrote to Hamilton.

When Lake last week floated referring the matter to the ombudsperson, critics panned the idea. "I think it's another swing and a miss for the Liberals," John Horgan, leader of the NDP opposition, told The Tyee. "I don't know why they don't understand arm's length, independent and open, but they clearly don't."

And the Vancouver Sun today quoted former auditor general John Doyle saying it would be a "waste of time" to ask the ombudsperson to investigate since his review would be too narrow to cover the full range of problems that led to the firings. Doyle said that while he was auditor general his office received allegations that went far beyond a few employees in the health ministry and reached up to political levels.

The Tyee reported last week that since 2011 the new ombudsperson, Chalke, had been an assistant deputy minister in the justice services branch of the ministry of justice. His boss in that job was deputy Attorney General Richard Fyfe, who at times has represented the government in matters related to the firings, including in letters to former health deputy minister Graham Whitmarsh and NDP MLA Adrian Dix.

Justice ministry lawyers were also involved in writing the termination letters to the people who were fired, providing advice to government officials before the firings and trying to prevent The Tyee from publishing details from leaked emails.

Thorough inquiry wanted

The NDP's Horgan today said his party supported Chalke's appointment as ombudsperson, but not to investigate the colleagues he's worked closely with in the justice ministry. "It's a difficult position to put him into in the first week on the job."

Horgan welcomed Lake referring the matter to the committee, but said much depends on the terms of reference given to the ombudsperson and how he decides to proceed. "He has tools at his disposal that could well get us to where we want to get," he said.

"I'm hopeful he'll understand the challenge he's been faced with and use the tools at his disposal to protect himself and the office and still discharge the responsibility that will be given to him by the committee," said Horgan, noting Chalke could for example appoint a retired judge to investigate.

"I think today's announcement is a confirmation by the government that their earlier attempts to put this under a rug were a failure," he said.

The four NDP members on the committee will be advocating strongly for a wide ranging process, he said. "We're going to try and get terms that are broad and comprehensive as possible"

In September 2012, the health ministry announced allegations related to data management, contracts and conflicts of interest that would lead to seven firings and the freezing of several drug research contracts.

Work that stopped as a result included an assessment of Premier Christy Clark's pet anti-smoking program.

The government has since reinstated two of the people who were fired, settled out of court in three wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuits, and Clark has apologized for some of the firings and for misleading the public. Two lawsuits are ongoing.

Eight people affected by the firings, including Linda Kayfish whose brother Roderick MacIsaac committed suicide a few months after being fired from a co-op position, wrote a June 24 letter to Lake asking for a "thorough and independent inquiry."  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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