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Gov't Released Thousands of Records on Health Firings? Not Quite, Says Dix

With many records unrelated, officials' claims are 'deeply misleading,' says NDP MLA.

By Andrew MacLeod 30 Nov 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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NDP MLA Adrian Dix says that many pages released by the government are unrelated to the 2012 firings.

Senior British Columbia government officials have said that thousands of pages of records have been publicly released on the botched 2012 firings by the Health Ministry, but an opposition critic says the claim is false.

"A fair person reviewing these 2,000 pages would say that's not a true statement [that they relate to the firings]," said Adrian Dix, the MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway. "In fact, those statements were deeply misleading."

Amrik Virk, the minister of technology, innovation and citizens' services, first made the claim on Nov. 3 that thousands of pages on the firings are available. Under pressure in the legislature about the firings, he said, "The members opposite suggest that government produced no records, but in fact some 40 packages containing 4,500 pages have been released under FOI to the requester."

Much of that information is already available on the website where the province posts the responses to freedom of information requests, he said. "Of this -- there are 28 packages -- some 2,000 pages were actually posted online in open information."

And in a Nov. 23 memo to all Health Ministry staff passing on a request from ombudsperson Jay Chalke that they not delete any records related to the firings while Chalke is investigating the matter, deputy health minister Stephen Brown wrote, "The ministry has produced a large number of records respecting the terminations in response to freedom of information requests and during Marcia McNeil's [earlier] investigation."

Unrelated records

A Health Ministry spokesperson provided a spreadsheet listing the 28 packages Virk referred to in the legislature, sending it both to The Tyee and an NDP researcher who independently made the same request.

Dix said the list included many pages of documents unrelated to the firings.

For example, it included a report on the Families First Agenda engagement process, a summary of focus groups from the Seniors' Healthy Living Secretariat, and a discussion guide on a 10-year plan to address mental health and substance use in the province.

There was also a memo to deputy ministers about the launch of the premier's innovation and excellence awards, a report from the Michael Smith Health Research Foundation on maximizing the impact of health research, and a briefing note about a private member's bill on concussions.

While Dix said many of the records appeared to be added to the list at random in an attempt to support Virk's statement in the legislature, it also included 32 pages in response to a request for "All documents regarding LifeSciences BC's interest in and proposals around accessing health data held by PharmaNet." LifeSciences BC is an association of biotechnology industry companies.

"They're making a link that's an interesting link, it seems to me," Dix said, observing that government officials had previously said there was no connection between the industry and the firings. The link was almost certainly made unintentionally, he said.

Dix said it's clear many of the pages that Virk said were already released to the public about the firings were totally unrelated.

Undocumented decisions

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 plans for 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.

A review by lawyer Marcia McNeil of what went wrong with the firings was released in December 2014, but McNeil wrote that she could not answer the basic questions of who made the decision to fire the workers or why.

McNeil wrote in her findings that throughout her investigation no employee would acknowledge their own role in any decision-making, resulting in a lot of finger pointing. Her investigation was also stymied by a "dearth of documents," such as reports, briefing notes, and meeting notes, which she noted are "frequently prepared in situations where discipline may be contemplated."

Dix said neither McNeil nor the public have seen records about the actual decision to fire people. "They released records of people who were in middle management and researchers, but there are no records for the decision makers," he said.

He noted that Brown himself conducted a months-long review that ended most of the lawsuits and reinstated two of the people who'd been fired, but that in doing so he produced no records. "That, I have to tell you, is impossible," Dix said.

Nor did other senior officials including Premier Clark, former health minister Michael de Jong, deputy to the premier John Dyble and deputy minister Athana Mentzelopoulos have records related to the firings, Dix said.

Decision makers have taken advantage of a lack of records to dodge responsibility, he added.

"These are Christy Clark's rules," Dix said. "These are the rules set down by the premier and her most senior people."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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