Les Leyne: Researcher’s death haunts ministry still

Les Leyne mugshot genericWhat a self-assured bunch they were, those various officials who “investigated” the alleged data breach by a group of health researchers that eventually turned into the health-firings scandal.

The short version of Ombudsperson Jay Chalke’s review released Thursday is that one or two officials developed an overwhelming conviction the whole bunch of them were guilty as hell. They somehow infected various other authorities with that belief. So rather than investigate the possibility that technical research data might have been misused, they searched for ways they could substantiate their foregone conclusions.

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The whole process turned into a runaway train and eventually, as Chalke put it Thursday, a “train wreck.”

One section of Chalke’s encyclopedic review of the scandal illustrates the supreme arrogance that was on display when the investigators who were supposed to ascertain facts went into the case in 2012 with their minds already made up. The handling of Roderick MacIsaac is the most abysmal example. He was the co-op student who was among those fired and who took his own life a few months later.

Chalke listened to recordings of the investigators’ interviews, and summarized the prevailing attitude. The investigators argued with the witnesses, refused to acknowledge their evidence, were close-minded and put the researchers in impossible positions, he said. They took nervousness as a sign of culpability and inability to answer a question as evasion.

The same imperious attitude was evident throughout the entire investigation. That’s why the witch hunt eventually collapsed under the weight of its own erroneous presumptions. That’s why taxpayers have paid a small fortune to all the people who were humiliated. That’s why another small fortune will be spent in further reparations, including a $500,000 academic endowment in MacIsaac’s name.

In MacIsaac’s interview, a quartet of supercilious interviewers focused on whether he used government data for his PhD thesis, and whether he had a flash drive with ministry data in his possession.

Nine times in a two-hour interview he told them he didn’t use the data for his thesis. Five times he told them he had no such flash drive.

That’s 14 consistent denials of allegations, complete with patient explanations of the background, all of which washed right over the interrogators’ heads.

They even tried to bully him into signing a questionable document that he had every right to consult a lawyer on. Then they concluded he was complicit when he demurred.

He was fired largely on the conclusions reached after the interview, although his co-op term had already ended by that time.

Why?

His termination letter asserted that he had “inappropriately accessed data for the purposes of his PhD.”

Wrong, said the ombudsperson.

It said he had tried to manipulate the process by providing “misleading and incomplete information.”

Wrong.

It said he jeopardized the privacy of British Columbians and the reputation of the ministry.

Wrong.

The case against him “was unsupported by the evidence and untrue,” said Chalke.

After MacIsaac’s dismissal, another investigator reviewed all of his communications and concluded on Nov. 27, 2012, that it was “highly unlikely that he had taken any data away from the ministry. I have never found anything that suggests that he ever brought home any sensitive data … Rather, I found he was adverse to the idea of handling this information at home.”

Chalke said the ministry did not contact MacIsaac to inform him of the reappraisal of his conduct, even though it completely contradicted the reasons he was fired.

Which is a shame, because five weeks later, he was found dead at his Saanich home, by his own hand.

No one can draw a straight, direct line from the termination to his suicide. But there is this: In July, after his supervisor was suspended, MacIsaac talked to an executive director because he was anxious about his future. The executive director told Chalke: “Roderick came to me and was wondering what his future was, he was concerned because he hadn’t completed the work … and he didn’t have the direction from [his suspended supervisor]. He said to me: ‘I’ve got a lot riding on this because I’ve got — my whole academic future is tied up in this.’ ”

Chalke said the people involved with this case are still haunted by it. No wonder.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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