A systemic problem

By Dermod Travis

Call it the elephant in the room quote.

Last July, health ministry whistleblower Alana James made a startling claim in an interview with The Vancouver Sun: “This was not about one ministry and less than a dozen individuals. This was systemic throughout government and public agencies and involved many people, some of them high up and in charge of making the decisions.” 

James rejected speculation that the health ministry firings were in any way related to research about specific drugs or the influence of big pharmaceutical companies on the B.C. Liberal party, calling it “a red herring.” 

What if she was on to something, though?

According to the report of the investigation by the Office of B.C.'s Comptroller General – an uncensored copy of which was obtained by The Vancouver Sun – “the results of the investigation also confirm that the informant’s allegations, with certain minor exceptions, have substantial merit and warrant further investigation by appropriate parties.”

If James was right on those points, it stands to reason she might be right on others.

James first raised concerns with officials in 2010. They included “how current and former government employees worked as contractors while helping to draft contracts that gave their colleagues or family special treatment in terms of funding, access to research and intellectual property rights.” 

Some news stories from the time add weight to her claims and they were not the kind that came with ministerial photo-ops.

In 2010, informal discussions had begun between then-deputy health minister John Dyble and Life Sciences BC over the possible sale ofpatient health information to private companies, according to documents released in 2015 through freedom of information. 

Until 2011, Dyble was also on the board of the Transportation Investment Corporation – responsible for overseeing the construction of the Port Mann bridge – with then Partnerships B.C. chair Larry Blain and former deputy transportation minister Peter Milburn.

One of the transportation ministry's former employees has found retirement golden. When he retired in 2006, his salary was $110,000. Since then he's billed the government an average of $261,200 annually.

Government policies back then required a competitive process for any contract over $25,000, though direct awards could be given if there was “only one possible vendor who was qualified or available.”

The comptroller general's investigation uncovered a $25,000 research contract on an Alzheimer’s drug therapy initiative that was later increased to $2.4 million.

On Christmas Eve in 2010, the attorney general's office posted a direct award of a $48,000 three-month contract to a Victoria-based consultancy firm.

In 2012, the government awarded a one-year, $198,000 contract to Louise Turner, the new president of the Premier's Technology Council, without holding a competitive process.

In 2011, Clark hired Athana Mentzelopoulos as deputy minister for corporate priorities. 

Three months later, the Vancouver Island Health Authority hired Mentzelopoulos's husband, Stewart Muir, as vice-president of communications and external relations, a post which paid $160,000 a year.

When news of the appointment broke, then Health minister Mike de Jong stated that “a contract was signed but that the procedures in place to ensure there's a fair competition weren't entirely followed.” The contract was cancelled.

Over at B.C. Hydro, the first contract was awarded under the smart meter program. The $73 million contract to install 1.9 million meters went to Corix Utilities. 

On the board of B.C. Hydro at the time was CAI Capital Management financial analyst Tracey McVicar.

A major shareholder of Corix was CAI Capital Management. 

B.C. Hydro's smart meter program cost an estimated $430 per meter. Quebec's program cost $263 per meter.

The multicultural outreach strategy was also in full swing by 2012. 

Barinder Bhullar – implicated in the scandal – was a ministerial assistant to de Jong when he was appointed health minister in 2011.

The government never meant for most of these stories to be public, but they hint at something systemic.

It's why James's concerns may have been viewed as threatening to open a proverbial Pandora's box.

Remember that red herring thing? Maybe that's what was intended. Everyone focused on the health ministry side of the story and skipped the most important part: “systemic throughout government.”

The issues James raised demand more than a cursory review and a now proven whistleblower deserves better.

In a former office of a long past independent investigative arm of the B.C. attorney general, a sign read: "Corruption breeds best in the dark." 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

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