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

Lynn Redford

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 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 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, 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." 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, 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. 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 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 Merali, well, we’ll fink out your 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?

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 David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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