“Abuse of Tax Dollars” Scandal Strikes Alberta’s Health System
According to reports emerging late Wednesday, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had planned to release an expos√© of the spending practices of AHS‚Äôs then CFO, Allaudin Merali. Before they could break the story, however, AHS and the Government of Alberta shocked journalists with a pair of media releases announcing and commenting on the immediate termination of Merali‚Äôs employment.
According to the CBC, and verified by documents publicly available on AHS‚Äôs website, Merali expensed nearly $350,000 from 2005 to 2008 to the Capital Health Authority during his tenure as CFO with that organization.
Merali was also involved in an expense-related controversy in Ontario, where he supposedly expensed even items costing less than $2, such as muffins and pop, while being paid over $2000/day as a consultant. Merali was subsequently hired again in Alberta, taking the AHS CFO position.
AHS acting CEO Chris Mazurkewich, himself a former CFO of AHS and a former senior executive at Interior Health in BC, said that his organization was concerned the expense reports would ‚Äúdetract from [Merali‚Äôs] ability to act as AHS‚Äô Chief Financial Officer, and that AHS will be put into a position where its commitment to uphold the highest standards of accountability and public confidence in Alberta Health Services could be left open to doubt.‚ÄĚ
The decision to terminate Merali‚Äôs employment was made in consultation with Dr. Chris Eagle, AHS President and CEO, who is on vacation. Merali will be eligible for severance pay per his contract with AHS.
Ostensibly hoping to stem further controversy, AHS also announced in the same media release that it would publicly post and provide quarterly updates on expense records for their CEO, Executive VPs, and Senior VPs.
Health Minister Fred Horne, who according to Merali‚Äôs expense reports was himself apparently treated to a dinner with the former CFO in 2005, released a statement Wednesday.
‚ÄúI am concerned, and I understand why Albertans would be concerned, about these expense claims,‚ÄĚ said Horne.
‚ÄúWhile travel and hosting expenses can be part of regular business, institutions such as AHS are funded by taxpayers‚Äô dollars and, as such, taxpayers rightly expect accountability,‚ÄĚ Horne continued.
‚ÄúI am satisfied with the action that has been taken today, and I support the decision by AHS to ask the Auditor General to validate their current processes and their commitment to make public all future expense claims of executive officials,‚ÄĚ he said.
But opposition politicians quickly erupted in a storm of political anger.
‚ÄúMr. Merali‚Äôs so-called ‚Äėdeparture‚Äô from his position was extremely sudden,‚ÄĚ said Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason.
‚ÄúAnd when you consider that the information on these expenses had just been released to a member of the media, this move shows the extent to which this PC government cannot be trusted,‚ÄĚ Mason continued.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs time to get back to what this whole system should be about, and that‚Äôs providing quality public health care for Albertans when they need it.‚ÄĚ
The Wildrose Official Opposition was even more assertive in their opinion.
Speaking to the expenses revealed Wednesday, Wildrose Official Opposition Leader Danielle Smith said ‚ÄúUnfortunately, this kind of entitlement and abuse of tax dollars is not out of place in PC Alberta.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWhen we‚Äôve got defeated MLAs collecting millions in severance packages, health executives receiving fat bonuses for underperformance and the Premier herself approving huge pay hikes for cabinet, nobody should be surprised when instances like these come to light,‚ÄĚ Smith said.
‚ÄúThe public service is merely following the example set by the government,‚ÄĚ she continued.
Others in the party were equally critical of the expense reports.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôve got long-term care beds being shut down, unacceptable wait times for critical procedures and front-line staff scrambling to provide the best care they can,‚ÄĚ Wildrose Health Critic Heather Forsyth opined Wednesday.
‚ÄúMeanwhile, our health executives are collecting performance bonuses and filing extravagant expense claims,‚ÄĚ she said.
Merali‚Äôs AHS salary, and hence severance amount, was not disclosed to media sources who inquired on Wednesday. However, media reports have indicated that Merali‚Äôs annual salary at Capital Health was nearly $500,000/yr in 2007. It is not yet clear whether Merali will be entitled to an entire year‚Äôs salary.
By Thursday morning, according to Edmonton media, Merali‚Äôs former boss and current AHS board member Sheila Weatherill has tendered her resignation.