Plenty of questions still to be answered by Alberta Health Services and Minister Horne
By Markham Hislop
The more Alberta Health Services tries to contain l’affaire Merali, the more it threatens to spiral out of control and damage Alison Redford’s government.
It’s a mess, all right, but a mess that doesn’t make sense.
Here’s what the government has done: terminated a senior executive’s employment contract, ordered a forensic audit, and implemented government-wide hiring and contracting reviews.
All over some ballet tickets, pricey wines and car repairs. As Beacon columnist David Climenhaga noted in today’s column, most of Merali’s expenses appear reasonable. The audit alone will likely cost more than Merali’s infractions.
Why all the fuss?
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By now Albertans know the basics. Allaudin Merali was the chief financial officer of the Capital Health Region from 2005 to 2008. CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell filed a Freedom of Information request that revealed Merali had filed expense claims totalling more than $346,000 over three years. When the story aired last week Alberta Health Services and Merali parted company.
During the past five days more information has come to light and there are a lot more questions than answers at the moment, but the nature of the questions is very illuminating.
For instance, the expenses were approved four to seven years ago by the Capital Health Region, which no longer exists, and under guidelines which were supposedly appropriate for their day, but were tightened after the transition to the province-wide superboard.
So why is Alberta Health Services on the hook for something that happened before it existed? An ex post facto application of today’s guidelines to old expense claims makes no sense.
Here’s what Alberta Health Services COO Chris Mazurkewich said on August 1 after reviewing the expense claims: “we are concerned, and Mr. Merali agrees, that they will detract from his ability to act as AHS’ Chief Financial Officer…”
Part of being a CFO is following the rules so that outsiders, like taxpayers, are confident in the organization’s financial statements. Merali, by all accounts, followed the rules. How then do the expense claims detract from Merali’s ability to function effectively as a CFO?
A golf club membership may look bad in a news story, but it’s not hookers and blow. Why not have him pay back the cost of fixing his Mercedes, and any other untoward expenses, instead of disrupting the organization?
And if everything was on the up and up, as Health Minister Fred Horne claims, why the unseemly haste to boot Merali? The CBC story aired August 1 and Merali departed the same day. Even disgraced Wall St. bankers hang on longer than that.
Alberta Health Services also announced on August 1 that Merali would “receive a severance in accordance with the terms of his employment contract.” On August 6 it said he would not.
What changed in five days? Did the Alberta Health Services board find a loophole in Merali’s contract?
Did Merali waive severance to save himself and the government public embarrassment? Was the $1 million severance and 10 years of $13,000 a month payments as a “supplemental executive retirement plan”when he left in 2008 enough largesse from Alberta taxpayers?
Merali expensed a dinner Horne attended in 2005. Doesn’t that place Horne in a conflict of interest?
And why is a former healthcare policy consultant now minister of a department he previously lobbied? What was the nature of Horne’s work as a lobbyist?
Horne is making a lot of noise about how he was “outraged to learn of these events.” How can he just be learning about them now? The CBC request was submitted in May. Are we to believe no one in Horne’s department bothered to alert the minister that politically embarrassing information might be released in short order?
According to media reports, the extravagant accountant (isn’t that an oxymoron?) was also in trouble in Ontario, where he toiled on the eHealth project after departing Alberta, over submitting a lot of expenses over and above his $2,750 daily rate of pay and $75 per diem.
Horne says he didn’t know about Merali’s problems in Ontario, but Finance Minister Doug Horner says he was aware. Opposition Leader Danielle Smith didn’t mince words about Horne’s supposed outrage.
“Either Mr. Horne was aware of Merali’s questionable past and is now wrongly claiming ignorance to save his skin, or he really didn’t have a clue that the man he endorsed for controller and later allowed to become Superboard CFO had a documented history of ripping off taxpayers,” she said.
“This kind of sloppy background work is hardly the performance of a Minister who exercises good judgment or who knows what’s happening in his department.”
Good point, Ms. Smith.
But we’re not done yet. In addition to the forensic audit, Horne also announced a “further review of hiring, selection and contracting priorities at AHS, in conjunction with a government-wide initiative.”
A government-wide review because one questionable candidate slipped through the cracks? Talk about taking broadswords to butterflies.
Methinks Fred Horne doth protest too much. And the more he protests the worse this looks for him and Alberta Health Services.