B.C. ombudsperson says he needs more power to probe health firings

B.C. ombudsperson Jay Chalke says he has serious concerns about a request for his office to investigate firings at the Health Ministry in 2012, noting he would need a battery of pre-conditions, including a legislative change to be able to interview people.

A legislature committee met Wednesday to consider asking the province’s ombudsperson to look into a flawed 2012 Health Ministry investigation which led to the firing of eight drug researchers. The government has rehired two and settled with four of the researchers.

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Chalke didn’t appear at the meeting but provided a 10-page letter in which he listed major concerns including the limitations of the Ombudsperson Act, the need to repeal or replace sections of the act to allow him access to testimony and documents he can’t get under the current law, the need for unanimous support from committee members and fired drug researchers.

›› DOWNLOAD: Attorney General Suzanne Anton's letter in response to ombudsperson's concerns

The committee must also get a commitment from the government to release people from confidentiality clauses signed as part of legal settlements with the government, and to disclose cabinet records and legal advice, Chalke wrote.

In response, Attorney General Suzanne Anton drafted a letter saying referral of the investigation to the ombudsperson is appropriate and can be independent. Although the ombudsperson’s interviews are private, the findings will be made public, she said.

She attached a table of options the government believes will mitigate most of his concerns.

Premier Christy Clark downplayed the barriers presented in the ombudsperson’s letter.

“I think in terms of the obstacles he’s pointed out, they would be the same obstacles faced by a public inquiry for the most part, so I think they are obstacles we can deal with together,” Clark said.

She said lawyers are working out the issues and the existing laws may allow the ombudsperson to do what he needs to do. “My early take on it is, yes, he can.”

NDP MLA George Heyman, a member of the committee, said without amending the legislation and addressing other important questions, he “can’t see how we would support a referral” of the investigation to the ombudsperson.

“What’s the point of referring something to the ombudsperson for an inquiry when he himself says: ‘I can’t do the job unless that confidentiality clause is changed, unless I have access to public documents, unless there’s a unanimous recommendation of the committee, and unless the fired employees themselves have some trust in the process,’ ” Heyman said.

Chalke said the purpose of his letter is not to advocate for or against a referral of the investigation to his office, but to ensure it is based on a realistic understanding of what his office can do, and what first needs to be changed to allow for success and ensure public confidence in its outcome.

The ombudsperson said he needs the government to “fully fund” the investigation and that because there are unresolved court cases, the government should not set “artificially tight timelines” for his work.

An independent review of the firings that was completed in December was unable to force people to testify under oath, and was therefore unable to conclude who ordered the firings and why, prompting calls for a public inquiry.

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake responded by asking a legislature committee to refer the investigation to the ombudsperson’s office — “which to the best of our knowledge is unprecedented” in the office’s 35-year history, Chalke said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

›› Click here to read Chalke's letter to the committee

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