Health Ministry officials don't want to say too much about the firing of seven drug researchers over allegations of breach of privacy and conflict of interest. We're concerned that they are saying too little.
Public officials are obliged to observe certain constraints in commenting on personnel matters for reasons of privacy. They must also be careful, in the case of lawsuits, not to make comments that could prejudice legal proceedings.
Still, the B.C. government owes it to the public and to those fired to be more specific and detailed about the accusations. In the normal course of justice, when a person is accused of wrongdoing, the details of the charge must be clearly spelled out and supported by evidence. A hearing before an impartial judge follows, in which guilt or innocence is determined based on the evidence. If the evidence sustains the accusation, a penalty is imposed.
Losing one's job, and possibly a career, is a harsh penalty. It should be imposed only after the requirements of proof have been satisfied. When an employer is police, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner all in one, the reasons for the firings should be valid and clearly stated, especially when the employer is the government.
If a grievous violation of the public trust has occurred, tell us what it is. How was that trust violated? Who suffered by it? It isn't enough to say, in effect: "Something horrible has happened, but we're not going to tell you what it is."
Had the researchers simply accepted the decisions to fire them, we would have little information. The government would have had little reason to explain. But those fired are seeking redress through lawsuits and grievance procedures, so more information comes to light as the province is obliged to respond to the suits.
But even that information can be puzzling. In documents filed in response to one of the lawsuits, the province alleges conflict of interest because one of the researchers gave preference to a member of his extended family. He hired the wife of his second cousin, a relationship far outside the government's definition of family for conflict-of-interest purposes. Finance Ministry regulations define a direct relative as "a spouse, parent, grandparent, grandchild, brother, sister, son or daughter."
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid has been meticulous about not disclosing the names of those involved, but the drug-research community is small - the names were known in minutes. The people involved were instantly under a cloud, one that darkened further when MacDiarmid announced that the RCMP have been asked to investigate to see if any crime was committed.
The health minister says there's no evidence that anyone benefited financially from the activities in question.
With lawsuits and other actions pending, it is more difficult for the government to comment, even if it were so inclined, but those proceedings will drag out over many months, if not years. Meanwhile, the fired researchers are left without employment, their reputations and careers ruined, without having their cases aired before an impartial tribunal.
An independent, non-political entity with powers like that of the auditor general or comptroller general should be appointed to determine what offences actually occurred, if they were intentional or inadvertent, what damage resulted and if the firings were warranted. It should be done carefully but quickly - this matter affects not only the careers of the people involved, but B.C.'s independent drug-review system and thus the health and safety of its citizens.
There are risks to doing and saying things openly, but they are not as great as the risks of keeping things hidden.
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