Commentary: The B.C. government one big, systemic family (May 2, 2016)

by Dermod Travis,

 

Call it the elephant in the room quote.

Last July, health ministry whistleblower Alana James made a startling claim in an interview with The Vancouver Sun: “This was not about one ministry and less than a dozen individuals.”

This was systemic throughout government and public agencies and involved many people, some of them high up and in charge of making the decisions.”

James also rejected speculation that the health ministry firings were in any way related to research about specific drugs or the influence of big pharmaceutical companies on the B.C. Liberal party, calling it “a red herring.”

And there it rested – systemic, throughout government, many people, some high up – never mentioned again.

Despite rampant speculation at the time over the reasons for the eight firings, the B.C. government has steadfastly refused to say what was behind the dismissals.

The government has since settled out-of-court with those fired, issuing apologies in all but two of the settlements.

One of the eight, Roderick MacIssac, was three days away from completing his PhD when he was let go. He committed suicide months later. The government has since apologized to his family.

What if James was on to something, though?

According to the report of the investigation by the Office of B.C.’s Comptroller General – an uncensored copy of which was obtained by The Vancouver Sun – “the results of the investigation also confirm that the informant’s allegations, with certain minor exceptions, have substantial merit and warrant further investigation by appropriate parties.”

If James was right on those points, it stands to reason she might be right on others.

In November 2014, The Tyee was leaked “hundreds of emails” pertaining to the firings.

On September 6, 2012 – the day of the firings – James emailed a contact in the auditor general’s office: “Basically they are going for low level people.”

In another email, James “said she expected the investigation would affect people at the assistant deputy minister or associate deputy minister level.”

The message is that it is a very small number of people, very contained, very limited, it does not go very high up…”

Points echoed two-years later – and a month before James’s emails were made public – by former deputy minister of health, Graham Whitmarsh, in an October 2014 email to then head of the Public Service Agency, Lynda Tarras.

“The original investigation never looked in depth above the Executive Director level, at the executive accountability for events in the ministry,” Whitmarsh wrote.

“Your immediate superior John Dyble is also seriously conflicted in this matter. In addition, he was the deputy minister of health at the time many of the actions that were the subject of the investigation happened. He was involved in some of the key decisions and the timing of some of the key events.”

In June 2009, Dyble was appointed deputy minister of health, where he served until March 2011.

Whitmarsh – known for his “I have nothing to hide, do you?” taunt in support of a public inquiry into the firings – succeeded Dyble at health, when the latter was appointed deputy minister to the Premier and Mike de Jong was appointed Health minister.

Whitmarsh was let go in 2013. Dyble retired from the public service earlier this year.

James first raised concerns with officials in 2010. They included “how current and former government employees worked as contractors while helping to draft contracts that gave their colleagues or family special treatment in terms of funding, access to research and intellectual property rights.”

The paper trail to back her up is meager and a handful of key players are silenced by out-of-court settlements.

Some news stories add weight to her claims and they were not the kind that came with ministerial photo-ops.

In 2010, informal discussions had begun between Dyble and Life Sciences BC over the possible sale of patient health information – including drug prescription information – to private companies, according to documents released in 2015 through freedom of information.

Formal meetings started in April 2011.

The most senior ministry attendee at those meetings was then-assistant deputy minister of health John Bethel, who had only recently been hired.

Bethel had been a member of Clark’s transition team in 2011.

By the time James had become persona non grata in the ministry, the proposal was still very much alive.

Government policies back then required a competitive process for any contract over $25,000, though direct awards could be given if there was “only one possible vendor who was qualified or available.”

The comptroller general’s investigation uncovered a $25,000 research contract on an Alzheimer’s drug therapy initiative that was later increased to $2.4 million despite not going back out for public tender.

On Christmas Eve in 2010, the attorney general’s office posted a direct award of a $48,000 three-month contract to a Victoria-based consultancy firm.

In 2012, the government awarded a one-year, $198,000 contract to Louise Turner, the new president of the Premier’s Technology Council, without holding a competitive process.

In 2011, Clark hired Athana Mentzelopoulos as deputy minister for corporate priorities.

Three months later, the Vancouver Island Health Authority hired Mentzelopoulos’s husband, Stewart Muir, as vice-president of communications and external relations, a post which paid $160,000 a year.

When news of the backroom appointment broke, de Jong stated that “a contract was signed but that the procedures in place to ensure there’s a fair competition weren’t entirely followed.” The contract was cancelled.

Things haven’t changed much.

Mr. de Jong is frequently “troubled” to learn of existing employment guidelines not being followed.

Think Michael Graydon’s departure from the B.C. Lottery Corporation or executive pay issues at Kwantlen University, the B.C. Cancer Agency and the Royal B.C. Museum.

Speaks more to a “just try not to get caught approach.”

Over at B.C. Hydro, the first contract was awarded under the smart meter program. The $73 million contract to install 1.9 million meters went to Corix Utilities.

On the board of B.C. Hydro at the time was its chair, Dan Doyle, who would later become Clark’s chief of staff, Partnerships B.C. chair Larry Blain, and CAI Capital Management financial analyst Tracey McVicar.

A major shareholder of Corix was CAI Capital Management.

McVicar was also a friend of Blain. The two worked together in the investment banking division at RBC Dominion Securities.

B.C. Hydro’s smart meter program cost an estimated $830 million for 1.9 million meters or $430 per meter. Hydro-Quebec’s program cost $1 billion for 3.8 million meters or $263 per meter.

As a former deputy minister of transportation, Dyble and Blain go back a ways too.

Until March 2011, Dyble was on the board of the Transportation Investment Corporation – responsible for overseeing the construction of the Port Mann bridge – with Blain and former deputy transportation minister Peter Milburn.

Earlier this month, the now retired Milburn was appointed by the government as a “facilitator” on the Capital Regional District sewage treatment plant project.

While there’s some movement involved with sewage, it doesn’t really qualify as transportation. Milburn has no known experience in sewage treatment plants.

One of the transportation ministry’s former employees has found retirement to be golden. When he retired in 2006, his salary was $110,000.

Since then – through a private corporation – he’s billed the government an average of $261,200 annually, for a total of $1.3 million.

The multicultural outreach strategy was also in full swing by 2012.

Barinder Bhullar – implicated in the scandal – was a ministerial assistant to de Jong when he was appointed health minister in 2011.

The government never meant for most of these stories to be public, but they hint at something systemic.

It’s why James’s concerns may have been viewed as threatening to open a proverbial Pandora’s box.

Remember that red herring thing? Maybe that’s what was intended all along.

Everyone focused on the health ministry side of the story and skipped the most important part: “systemic throughout government.”

The issues James raised demand more than a cursory review and a now proven whistleblower deserves better.

In a former office of a long past independent investigative arm of the B.C. attorney general, a sign read: “Corruption breeds best in the dark.”

 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.    www.integritybc.ca

May 2, 2016

 

UPDATE: At the time of writing, this commentary relied on the information that was known and how it was disseminated.

 

In April 2017, B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke released his report into the firings. You can consult it here.