Editorial: Health firings a train wreck

British Columbians finally have answers about the firing of Health Ministry researchers in 2012, and those answers show the ministry took unsubstantiated allegations and railroaded people who did not deserve it.

The investigation was sloppy, the process was unfair, the decisions were rushed and the firings were unjustified, according to a report by B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke. The ministry saw allegations of improper contracting and misuse of health data — and it overreacted.

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Seven people were fired, research projects were damaged, at least one company folded with the loss of 10 jobs, and co-op student Roderick MacIsaac, seeing no hope of salvaging his career, killed himself.

“This breakdown happened in part because a number of government controls and practices were not followed,” Chalke said. “Investigators did not bring an open mind, and the investigative process was unfair. The dismissals were rushed, the human-resources process effectively collapsed and there was confusion about the scope of the legal advice provided, all of which resulted in terminations that were unjustified.”

In effect, the ministry set up a private investigation unit staffed with unqualified people and turned them loose without adequate direction or oversight. The result was suspensions and, later, firings.

In 2012, newly appointed health minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced that an investigation had revealed serious allegations of inappropriate data access and conflicts of interest. She said the RCMP would be asked to investigate.

In fact, Chalke said, the RCMP had warned the government it would not make a decision about whether to investigate until it got the ministry’s final report. Even the government’s internal debate about whether to mention the RCMP was rushed. No report was ever sent to the police.

The cascading injustices began with Alana James, the whistleblower who brought allegations of what she saw as wrongdoing in research contracts. Chalke, who does not name James, said she lacked the knowledge or experience to understand the processes.

He broke her complaint into seven parts and examined the basis for each part. One, he said, was correct, one was partially correct, and the other five were incorrect.

“The complainant had a sincere belief in relation to the allegations she made,” Chalke found. “The complainant was uninformed and her assertions were mostly wrong.”

The complaint was then put in the hands of an unnamed “reviewer,” which accelerated the disaster.

“The initial reviewer was overwhelmed by the task, and ill-equipped to address the complex issues raised by the complainant,” Chalke wrote.

From there, the investigation was turned over to a team that Chalke found lacked oversight, direction and adequate training. It produced findings that were unsupported by evidence. More remarkably still, the decision to fire employees was taken in several instances without the involvement of their supervisors or even, in some cases, the supervisors’ knowledge.

Reading Chalke’s findings, it appears that almost every step of a process that had career- and life-altering implications for the employees and contractors was bungled. Those in the ministry who tried to suggest less drastic ways of dealing with the people were ignored.

Although most of the attention has focused on the ministry researchers, the collateral damage was wider than that. Contractors, researchers and universities lost their data access based “on suspicion alone,” Chalke wrote.

The people making the decisions lost sight of the fact that the ministry’s policies about data use needed to be fixed, and the ministry knew it.

We must remember in all of this that although some data were handled incorrectly, the government has admitted the data were used only for research. The researchers were just trying to do their jobs. No one was harmed by the supposed misdeeds, but many people were harmed by the investigation and the firings.

It’s as if the people who run our civil service suddenly forgot everything they knew about how to handle personnel issues fairly. The managers were so spooked by the allegations that they threw the procedures out the window and threw the workers under the bus.

As Chalke rightly recommends, the province needs a law that not only protects whistleblowers, but also safeguards the rights of those who might be accused by whistleblowers and spells out a fair process for investigation. That might prevent similar injustices from happening in the future.

How should we deal with those who set this tragedy in motion? Chalke says it’s too late to lay blame.

“It is important for the Ministry of Health and the broader public service to begin the difficult work of reconciliation, not inflict more pain or engage in scapegoating,” the report says.

But there is a difference between scapegoating and holding people to account for what they have done. This was not an accident caused by momentary inattention, it was sustained and repeated violations of policy, procedure and human decency. And the dismissal of MacIsaac just days before his term ended came close to sadism.

Beyond that, the notion that a person can avoid being held accountable by letting time pass could delay any future investigations. The incentive will be to defer rather than come clean.

Yes, the firings caused too much pain, but that does not mean that the people who caused the pain, who ruined lives and valid research, should escape without consequence. What will the deputy minister do about this?

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