Cone of Silence won’t make Albertans any less angry at expense account shenanigans

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne, at right, and a representative of the media go inside the Cone of Silence to discuss the latest health care expense account revelations. Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated, but, boy, Maxwell Smart sure looks like Dalton McGuinty! Below: Premier Redford’s sister Lynn, CBC reporter Charles Rusnell and the real Mr. Horne.

Aw, geeze! Just when you thought it was safe to say something nice about Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government and bury the phrase “culture of corruption” once and for all, another shoe drops in the apartment upstairs.

This time it was yesterday’s report by CBC investigative journalist Charles Rusnell that a senior executive at the old Calgary Health Region used public money earmarked for health care to make donations to PC Party fund-raisers in the mid-2000s with more than a little help from her generous expense account.

Some of Mr. Rusnell’s previous reports, as alert readers will recall, have catalogued similar donations of public funds to the Alberta Tories from school boards, community colleges, universities and health regions – a sort of long-standing money laundering scheme in which taxpayers’ public dollars were routinely converted into private cash for partisan use.

But the really embarrassing thing about the harvest of this latest CBC Freedom of Information search is that the executive in question, one Lynn Redford, is Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s sister.

We will pause here for a moment for all Progressive Conservative supporters reading this to do the traditional palm-to-face gesture that signifies the expiration of all hope. While we wait for them to separate their fingers from their foreheads, we can ponder an interesting question: How many more well shod feet does this Tory centipede have?

According to Mr. Rusnell’s lengthy report yesterday, which shares the byline of Jennie Russell, Lynn Redford was a Calgary Health Region executive when she attended some Tory events back when Alberta still had nine geographically based health regions. These included party fund-raisers, a premier’s dinner and a golf tournament. These Progressive Conservative Party events apparently benefitted mightily from her Calgary Health expense account.

Items claimed as expenses, according to the CBC report, included “fund-raiser tickets, travel costs, mileage, hotel rooms and even more than $200 for liquor for a Tory barbeque.”

Indeed, according to the two CBC reporters, Lynn Redford also expensed a dinner with her sister, now the premier, after Alison Redford was first elected as a Calgary MLA in the 2008 Alberta election.

Alas, political contributions with public funds have been illegal since 2004.

The trouble is, as is becoming increasingly apparent, doing so was absolutely standard operating procedure and nobody even thought twice about it. Indeed, it would seem that to a degree at least this is still so, if Health Minister Fred Horne and Alberta Health Services are to be believed.

Leastways, Mr. Horne told the Edmonton Sun, “I’m not going to make any comment on past health regions. What I can tell you is we have very strict policy here at Alberta Health Services with respect to these sort of donations.” So, the past is irrelevant?

As for AHS, the Calgary Herald quotes an AHS statement saying that when Lynn Redford worked at Calgary Health expense account rules “were not well defined and were open to interpretation.” Ms. Redford was “meeting the expectations and norms at that time,” the AHS added.

This is relevant, of course, because nowadays Lynn Redford is Alberta Health Services’ vice-president of special projects. Patti Grier, the Calgary Health boss who approved her expense accounts, is now chief of staff and corporate secretary.

Which raises an interesting question. Not so long ago, Mr. Rusnell also uncovered the sorry case of Alauddin Merali, the former Capital Health Region chief financial officer who had racked up some pretty spectacular expense account claims. Mr. Merali was swiftly thrown under the bus by the Redford Government and AHS top brass, who had rehired him to do the same job for the province-wide health agency. This was despite the fact there is no evidence he ever broke the rules at Capital Health.

So why are these different former regional health executives being treated differently by the government and the AHS executive suite?

Look, this sort of thing is why cries of “culture of corruption” by the Opposition parties in the Legislature – the right-wing Wildrose Party has been loudest, but the left-leaning NDP is certainly in enthusiastic agreement – seem to be taking on increasing credibility among ordinary Albertans.

Even jaded old bloggers like this one, who have a pretty cynical view of opposition calls for inquiries, commissions and investigations, not to mention claims like those of Opposition Leader Danielle Smith that what we have here in Alberta is “a continued, systematic, systemic, institutional breach of the elections law,” are starting to feel as if there’s an actual problem.

And this perception sure as heck isn’t going to go away anytime soon just because Mr. Horne is trying to lower the Cone of Silence over it!

For one thing, while Stephen Duckett, the Australian PhD hired to run Alberta Health Services in the spring of 2009 and then fired in the fall of 2010 by then premier Ed Stelmach when he became a lightning rod for the health system’s failings, tried to clean things up, it’s far from certain the problem of officials not being able to distinguish between the public’s interests and the PC Party’s didn’t extend well beyond his purview.

For another, it’s hard to shake the feeling there’s some tit-for-tat leaking going on by former officials of both the Calgary and Capital Health Regions – you fink out our Mr. Merali, well, we’ll fink out your Ms. Redford!

So, while anything is possible in a province where voting Tory is such a deeply ingrained habit, maybe these Redford Tories are finding themselves mired deeper than they expected, and it won’t be that easy a task for them to dig themselves out.

Never mind, by the way, that these various sins took place under previous PC premiers. The sniff test has as much to do with how the government on watch when the transgressions are discovered reacts as which one was in charge when the sinning actually took place.

So what should the Tories do, assuming – as it’s presumably safe to do – they’re serious about getting re-elected in three and a half years?

Ms. Smith’s suggestion they simply throw open the expensive account records of all health regions back to 2005 is reasonable one. Why not? It was our money anyway. And if the news is bad, it’s smarter to let it all loose in one massive blast. As has been said here before, if Richard Nixon had done that, he’d likely have served out his term as U.S. president.

It sure doesn’t sound like that’s what the Redford Government has in mind, though.

Likewise, NDP MLA Rachel Notley’s call for an independent inquiry increasingly seems like an excellent way to clear the air.

Past experience with Alberta Tories and calls for wide-ranging public inquiries, though, also suggest this idea is a non-starter.

Regardless, this government needs to do something positive about the whole question of weak election financing laws from which they have benefitted for a long time but which are now weighing them down like the proverbial millstone.

That something could be a tough election financing law, fully transparent, that put meaningful limits on the amounts that could be contributed to parties and political candidates, including party leadership candidates, and controls on the ways those donations can be made, including multiple donations by corporate front groups.

Don’t hold your breath for that outcome either.

Still, these may be the only ways to lay to rest the accusations of a pervasive, embarrassing, deeply entrenched culture of political corruption here in Alberta.

If the Redford Tories don’t do something about the sense something is deeply wrong with the way elections are financed in Alberta, the stink will linger – possibly long enough to do them real harm when the next election rolls around in 2016!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

5 Comments on "Cone of Silence won’t make Albertans any less angry at expense account shenanigans"

  1. Bruce says:

    If this doesn’t seal the case for public financing of elections, then nothing will. Given the corruption investigation in Quebec, the fishy robocalls with the federal Cons and now this, how can any Canadian have any faith in the process we boastfully claim to be democratic? If the old Reform Party can form and hold a government for ten years, then why not the NDP?

    Surely, they would be able to at least make a case for public financing as the only way to level the playing field and try to retain something of a democratic political system. Perhaps, the NDP would be able to benefit by making this case that the country really needs a strong kick in the butt and put a marker down on the issue. That least that’s my fantasy, as unrealistic as it sounds.

    Rafe Mair’s ideas would be a good starting point:

    http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2012/10/29/PM-Monstrous-Power/
    http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2012/11/12/Fixes-to-Broken-Democracy/

    The notion that public institutions can’t be corrupted by money, public or private, because they’re ‘transparent’ is horse feathers. What’s required is institutions that have some teeth and a few worthy, tough as nails, civil servants like Kevin Page who’ll actually call out the self-serving public officials we elect.

    It’s only a dream but it seems that’s all we’ve got at the moment. Lord know the Economic Action Plan only benefits sign painters and TV commercial directors!

    PS Dave, your blog is a treasure of insight, humour and art! A picture truly can say a thousand words! Well played Sir!

  2. jerrymacgp says:

    I have commented elsewhere [http://daveberta.ca/2012/11/calgary-health-region-donations/comment-page-1/#comment-24460] on what this means in the context of Alberta’s political culture. Here, I want to just add that it is too rich for the Wildrosers to be sniping at this, since so many of their caucus are floor-crosing Tory retreads that, at least by association, benefited from these practices (by virtue of their having been members of that same PC party whose coffers were swollen by these ill-gotten gains). The WR pot really is calling the PC kettle black.

  3. ronmac says:

    If there is indeed a tit-for-tat leaking going on between former officials of the Calgary and Capital Health Regions then we could be having our own Gaza-style Middle East war brewing right here in Alberta.

    All we have to figure out which side is lobbing the homemade hillbilly rockets and which side is using state-of-the-art, precision-guided missile technology that BaracK Obama reportedly is so fascinated with?

    You have to give that nod to Merali who had $346,000 in expense claims which paid for expensive dinners, fine wines and Rolls Royce repairs.

    Stack that up against a barbecue booze bill of $200 (and what’s that really, 10 cases of beer?) and well, there’s no contest in this shooting war.

    Speaking of Richard Nixon serving out a second term, here’s a bit of trivia. Nixon was planning to introduce Canadian-style medicare. He announced these plans in his 1974 State-of-the Union.

    If he succeeded, it’s quite possible Americans today would be fondly remembering the tricky Dicky era as the real Camelot.

    • david says:

      For those of us who think of ourselves as progressive, it’s worth remembering why Richard Nixon did not succeed with Canadian style health care. It was at least partly because Democrats and their supporters in the union movement didn’t think his plan was good enough, so they rejected the whole thing from the get-go. This is called throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and we progressives do it all the time. It has not worked out well for us, and it’s time to reconsider the strategy of perfection or nothing. That, of course, means compromise, and political compromise at that. In the case of the NDP, it means acting like a political party, not a church.

  4. EQ8Rhomes says:

    A very interesting parallel to church schism! The Only True Church of the Alberta Conservative Party has splintered into two, giving birth to the Only True Church of the Alberta Wild Rose Evangelical Party.
    Now, each church is claiming to be THE ONLY TRUE CHURCH!
    Alberta’s 41 year ruling party’s rorting (Oz term) of public money has corrupted the political church.
    It is just like Dr. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral where, reportedly, the whole extended family had its snout in the trough. It is a Catholic church today.
    Kool Aid anyone?

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