Three people harmed by the 2012 health ministry firings say they will resist participating in the Ombudsperson's review of what happened unless they receive better access to documents and more funding for legal fees.
Lawyers Gary Caroline and Joanna Gislason represent former health ministry employees Ramsay Hamdi and David Scott, as well as Linda Kayfish, the sister of fired co-op student Roderick MacIsaac who later committed suicide.
"Our clients have been very clear with your office that they are not willing to be re-victimized by another unfair or inadequate investigation process," the lawyers wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to Ombudsperson Jay Chalke. "They have also been very clear about what, at a minimum, they would need in order to be able to participate meaningfully and effectively."
The lack of an opportunity to review key documents, including their own email from when they worked for the ministry, is a problem, the lawyers wrote. Nor is $1,000 enough to begin to cover the legal fees for the three, especially when compared to the $25,000 that could be available to government officials suspected of wrongdoing, they said.
In the letter the lawyers, who have been working on the file since at least last summer, say "the legal work that has already gone into pursuing our clients' right to a fair, inclusive and meaningful procedure has far surpassed this amount."
Nor are they hopeful the outcome will help their clients. "Unfortunately, it is now apparent that your process will be of no benefit to them and is in fact likely to cause them further harm," Gislason and Caroline's letter said.
"Unless the... procedural issues are rectified, our clients will be opposing your summons and asking that you cease your investigation of what is, for all intents and purposes, their complaint."
Witnesses treated equally, says official
An official with Chalke's office said in a Feb. 12 letter to the lawyers that Hamdi, Scott and Kayfish could be summoned for an interview as early as March 2016.
The letter also said it's not the Ombudsperson's role to provide participants with access to documents or be a "conduit" for information from the government.
Chalke was unavailable for an interview.
"All witnesses in the ongoing investigation are treated equally," a spokesperson in Chalke’s office said in an emailed statement. "The government’s indemnity for legal advice prior to an interview is available to every witness. It consists of $1,000 towards any legal fees they may incur when preparing to attend an interview."
Additional funding of up to $25,000 is available only to "individuals who we later determine may be adversely affected by the report or recommendations that result from our investigation."
The statement said each witness would receive a summons. "We expect all witnesses to provide complete disclosure of the records in their possession and to provide evidence under oath," it said. "Issuing a summons to each witness is the mechanism through which that fact-finding occurs."
I'm hands off, says minister
In 2012 the health ministry fired seven employees and suspended research contracts citing allegations related to data management, contracts and conflicts of interest.
The matter led to five lawsuits for wrongful dismissal and defamation, all of which were settled out of court. Two employees have returned to working for the health ministry. Premier Christy Clark has apologized for some of the firings and for misleading the public about a non-existent RCMP investigation into the allegations.
Amid calls for a public inquiry into the firings, last summer Health Minister Terry Lake requested a legislature committee refer the matter to the Ombudsperson's office for review.
Asked today about the concerns raised about legal fees and access to documents, Lake said he had no comment because the matter is now the Ombudsperson's responsibility.
"It's under his purview and that's rightly where it belongs," he said. "I'm completely hands-off as I should be, and it is up to the Ombudsperson to conduct the investigation as he sees fit."
The Ombudsperson's office was created to ensure the government treats people fairly, Lake said. "I'm confident he's doing his work in a way that upholds that principle."
The committee that referred the issue to the Ombudsperson's office was split in a 5-4 vote along party lines. Carole James, the NDP MLA who co-chairs the committee, said she expects the Ombudsperson to appear before it soon to answer questions.
"We'll certainly raise our questions and the questions that have come up," she said, adding that the request for documents and legal fee coverage are reasonable. "I think there'll be lots of questions, just as there were through the beginning of the process."
The NDP supported a public inquiry into the firings instead of referring it to the Ombudsperson. James said of Chalke's review, "As we said at the start, this is not an ideal process."
An earlier investigation report by employment lawyer Marcia McNeil said some key senior officials declined to participate in her review and that she could not answer questions about who made the decision to fire the employees or why.