Provincial health ministry kept only one email about drug researcher firings

The British Columbia Health Ministry kept only one email over a period of two years about... 

Citizens' Services Minister Amrik Virk | Photo: Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

The British Columbia Health Ministry kept only one email over a period of two years about the firing of eight drug researchers, according to documents.

Premier Christy Clark has stated that legal authority for the 2012 firings rested with the deputy minister of health.

But the NDP released documents October 29 showing that when it asked the Health Ministry for any records sent or received by former deputy Graham Whitmarsh or his replacement, Stephen Brown, from May 2012 to July 2014, the government released just one heavily censored email.

“How is it possible that two deputy ministers of health managed to keep just one record on the firing of eight health researchers?” asked NDP MLA Katrine Conroy.

Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk had no answer for that, but he insisted that “a large number of records” have been turned over to ombudsperson Jay Chalke for his review of the firings.

NDP Leader John Horgan questioned where the documents are coming from given that his party also asked the premier’s office for any records over the same time period and was told that none existed.

“Now Mr. Virk tells us that there are documents and we’ll see them some time in the future,” he said. “Our experience is: no records found, save for one.”

Horgan said he hopes Chalke has better luck finding documents than the NDP, so that he can get to the bottom of what happened.

The government fired the drug researchers following a flawed investigation into alleged privacy breaches. One of the researchers, Roderick MacIsaac, committed suicide, and the government later apologized for its heavy-handed approach, rehired some employees and settled with others. Two lawsuits remain before the courts.

Victoria lawyer Marcia McNeil reviewed the government’s investigation last year and concluded that it was plagued by preconceived notions of wrongdoing and was unfair to the accused.

She was unable to determine who ordered the firings or why, in part, because the case lacked “the reports, briefing notes, meeting notes or other documents which are frequently prepared in situations where discipline may be contemplated. This dearth of documents has granted the decision-makers … an opportunity to avoid taking ownership of the decision.”

Longtime bureaucrat Ron Mattson, who settled a wrongful-dismissal suit in August 2014 after the B.C. government said it made a “regrettable mistake” in firing him, said there should be a full electronic trail of the Health Ministry firings.

“Based on my 28 years in government, it is totally unbelievable that there are no email records, that there are no documents produced that relate to the decisions made.”

Mattson said in trying to find evidence against the Health Ministry employees, the government dug through at least a decade of emails.

However, when the fired researchers have tried through access requests to investigate the government’s electronic footprint, they get empty or redacted results.

Mattson said there’s no defensible explanations for why McNeil was unable to find emails and documents for her review.

“In a whole culture that’s email-driven and decision-document-driven, either they are lying about documents not being in existence, or from the outset they changed the process because they knew what they were doing was wrong.”

Times Colonist