Victoria's pricey secrets
Just how far is the B.C. government willing to go to guard its secrets? A great distance, if the 2012 health ministry firings are any indication.
Four million documents linked to the firings have mysteriously materialized out of thin air for the latest investigation into the scandal, this one by B.C. ombudsperson Jay Chalke.
There’s a history behind some of those documents, where they were, how they were handled and by whom.
Victoria labour lawyer Marcia McNeil’s 2014 review into the firings was a bust due to what she called the “dearth of documents” which “granted decision-makers…an opportunity to avoid taking ownership of the decision.”
On October 30, 2015, The Times Colonist reported that “Top officials in B.C.’s Health Ministry kept just one email from a two-year period on the botched firing of eight drug researchers.”
Yet, four days before that news article, the ministry was signing what turned into a $45,000 contract with an outside consultant for an “inventory of sensitive records at 4000 Seymour Place.”
The contract is included in a 23-page spreadsheet “listing all contracts…that have been directly awarded by the ministry from January 1, 2012 to February 9, 2016.”
The inventory is 92 pages long. The description of each document, CD/DVD, box or envelope is redacted on all but nine of the pages.
The non-redacted items, however, include references to “Binder Investigation 2012-0601 Background from Deputy Minister Whitmarsh’s office, confidential draft for discussion, handwritten note on findings, pre-interview issue summary and data sharing agreement.”
From a dearth of documents to perhaps an abundance of documents?
This past January the ministry awarded a second $50,000 contract “to review sensitive material to support the Ministry of Health ability to respond in a timely way to FOI requests and to request from the Office of the Ombudsperson.”
No ordinary consultant was entrusted with the two contracts.
Since 2004, the government’s “go-to” consultant on such matters has billed $1.6 million, not including billings to Camosun College, Royal Roads University, BCIT, TransLink and B.C. Ferries.
You might think out of 27,000 public employees working directly for the government, it could find someone up to the task.
According to Hooper Consulting’s website, its president – Bev Hooper – “brings over 30 years experience providing information access, privacy and/or information management advice and services to both public and private sector organizations.”
“She maintains a welcomed practical approach in responding to her clients needs in this very regulated and policy driven field.”
Interesting needs the government sends her way. Interesting timing too.
B.C. Rail hired the firm when former auditor general John Doyle was conducting an audit into the government’s legal indemnity program prompted by the $6 million bill racked up by Dave Basi and Bob Virk in the B.C. Rail scandal.
PavCo retained Hooper for two-years preceding the destruction of 403 boxes of documents related to B.C. Place operations, including personnel files, construction bids and engineering work logs.
Hooper is identified on a government website as the freedom of information contact for two Crown corporations: Partnerships B.C. and the Transportation Investment Corporation (TIC). A Shaw email address is listed as her contact email for TIC.
In addition to those hats, Hooper wears another.
Since 2008, Hooper has been the chief privacy officer for Maximus Canada that administers B.C.’s MSP program.
Maximus also billed the government $1.1 million – $950 per phone call – to handle calls related to the 2012 privacy breach that allegedly was at the core of the firings.
First, “no records.” Then a contract to itemize “sensitive records.” Then a “review of sensitive material.”
The intent of the umpteenth investigation into this scandal was to put matters to a rest once and for all, not sow more doubt.
As Health Ministry spokeswoman Sarah Plank put it: “We recognize the public’s desire to fully understand what took place in regard to the issue of the health firings. That’s why the matter was referred to the ombudsperson for investigation.”
Did the ombudsperson know of the third-party review by Hooper in the midst of his investigation? Were some documents redacted before they were turned over? Were others destroyed and, if so, on whose authority?
His office isn’t saying, falling back on its “broad information gathering power.”
The stakes are high for Chalke. This is his career defining report.
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.