The decision to fire employees from the ministry of health in 2012 was “wrong and unjust” but made by a senior bureaucrat without political interference, a report from British Columbia’s Ombudsperson has found.
“The decision to dismiss six Ministry of Health employees was made by former Deputy Minister of Health Graham Whitmarsh,” said a summary of the 487-page report “Misfire: The 2012 Ministry of Health Employment Terminations and Related Matters” released today.
The ministry fired six employees directly, and a seventh was constructively dismissed, it found.
“The ministry did not have sufficient evidentiary basis to dismiss any of the employees for just cause,” it said. “We determined that none of the dismissed employees engaged in conduct sufficient to support their terminations.”
It was a “wrong and unjust decision with far-reaching consequences,” Ombudsperson Jay Chalke told reporters.
The report found Whitmarsh kept other senior bureaucrats and politicians informed, but ultimately made the decision to fire the employees.
“The Ombudsperson determined that although Premier Clark, Minister de Jong and Mr. Dyble (former Deputy to the Premier) were aware of the investigation, none of them, and no one in the Premier’s office or the Minister of Health’s office, directed Deputy Minister Whitmarsh to make the dismissal decisions,” the report said. “There was no political interference in the dismissals.”
Whitmarsh, who was fired with severance as part of a 2013 cabinet shuffle, said today he has not yet seen the report.
Chalke recommended issuing apologies to individuals directly affected and an overall public apology. He suggested the government make “goodwill payments” of between $15,000 and $125,000 to people affected.
He also recommended establishing a $500,000 endowment fund for a scholarship at the University of Victoria in the name of Roderick MacIsaac, a PhD student who committed suicide a few months after being fired from his co-op job with the health ministry.
Systemic changes are needed, Chalke said, including tighter procedures for suspending or dismissing employees, stronger rules for how to deal with whistleblower complaints and oversight by the Merit Commissioner of the Public Service Alliance’s procedures.
The investigation that led to the firings began with a complaint about data breaches and contract awards to the Auditor General in 2012 that the Ombudsperson found was sincere but “uninformed and mistaken about the facts.” The ministry’s botched investigation process failed to discover that the complaint was unfounded, Chalke found.
“Although this complaint was almost entirely inaccurate, the ministry did not assess its factual validity at the outset. Instead, the ministry asked a fairly inexperienced employee to conduct an initial review of the complaint.”
Chalke said the decision to mention the RCMP in a September 2012 press release on the firings was a mistake.
“The decision to include the reference to the RCMP was debated by the ministry, Government Communications and Public Engagement, and Ministry of Justice up until the final moments before the public announcement was made, but Minister [Margaret] MacDiarmid was not told about this debate or about the legal advice the ministry received before making the announcement,” the summary said.
MacDiarmid had become health minister shortly before the announcement, taking over from Mike de Jong. Including this reference to the RCMP was misleading because the RCMP had advised the ministry that they would not even make a decision about whether to investigate until a final report was received from the ministry investigation, the investigation found. “The RCMP never did conduct an investigation.”
The firings and the fallout had a large impact on the individuals involved, it said. “Common themes included fear, anxiety, loss of income and resulting financial uncertainty, harm to reputation and career, harm to relationships, and, for some, significant health problems.”
It also affected research companies, including Blue Thorn Research and Analysis Group, where 10 people lost their jobs after the government froze their access to data. “Government conducted itself unreasonably and unfairly in the manner in which it dealt with these research companies,” Chalke found. “In doing so it acted contrary to the ministry's own interests.”
Kim Henderson, deputy minister to Premier Clark and head of the B.C. Public Service, said in a prepared statement that Chalke’s report identified the failings of multiple government departments and that the public service needs to be accountable for that failure. “On behalf of the Public Service of British Columbia, I want to offer an unqualified and comprehensive apology to all who were adversely affected by public service conduct,” she said.
The government will fully review the report, its findings and recommendations, she said. “There is no question the public service must use this report as the basis for significant and meaningful action and changes. I am committed to taking measures that address the report, and where appropriate go further, to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
Henderson told reporters that the government is moving ahead on a reparation process and plans to make the payments the Ombudsperson recommended, including establishing a new scholarship at UVic in MacIsaac’s name.
Some employees have returned to work and five lawsuits were settled out of court.
“They did a very thorough and competent job of detailing the stuff we already know,” said Bill Warburton, whose health ministry contract was cancelled in 2012. However, he said, the report didn’t go far enough. “I could not find any evidence they were trying to figure out who would benefit from the firings.”
His wife Rebecca Warburton, the co-director of research and evidence development in the ministry’s pharmaceutical services division before she was fired, said the report fails to answer several key questions.
“This is very disappointing,” she said. “As we sat there we got more and more depressed.” While the report contained some good recommendations about reopening grievances, establishing a scholarship and providing some compensation for people, she said, it needed a stronger plan for re-establishing government’s drug research.
She also said the report would have benefited from a more open and transparent process where everyone could hear testimony and respond to it. “We still need a public inquiry,” she said.