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Explaining Alberta Health Services: Nursing home repairs? Sorry, we need the money for Allaudin Merali!

Sheila Weatherill

Let's cut right to the chase: If Alberta Health Services can afford to buy out Allaudin Merali, again, it can afford to keep the doors open at the Little Bow Continuing Care Centre in Carmangay.

The Little Bow centre in the village of 275 souls way down in Wildrose country is home to 18 elderly dementia patients. AHS says that at 54 years old, the building just too expensive to renovate and too rickety to keep open. Why, it would cost about a million dollars to fix the roof, make the washrooms wheelchair accessible and do the other work that's needed!

So the place going to have to close, 36 jobs will be lost in a community that depends on them and the residents will be scattered to the four winds -- or, more likely, nearby Alberta towns like Vulcan and Claresholm.

Merali, meanwhile, is the former Alberta Health Services Chief Financial Officer who got canned Wednesday afternoon when the other top execs at the massive province-wide health agency learned the CBC was about to broadcast an expose on his startling expense account practices in a previous Alberta health sector job.

Actually, CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell filed his Freedom of Information request back in May, so it's hard to imagine the AHS executives and Health Minister Fred Horne haven't known about this for a while, but never mind that just now.

An awful lot of Albertans were having trouble yesterday getting their heads around the repeated assurances by AHS and government officials that Merali didn't actually do anything wrong when as CFO of the now-defunct Capital Health region back between 2005 and 2008 he filled out those suddenly notorious expense accounts -- but that he's now being asked to leave AHS because of it just the same.

What Merali expensed back then could be pretty startling: regular meals at luxurious restaurants that rarely seemed to cost less than $200, fine wine by the gallon, repairs to his luxury automobile, plus takeout food for meals at home, a muffin here, a can of pop there, a cuppa tea some other place -- almost $350,000 worth over three years. In fairness, many of his expenses were obviously legitimate as well.

But the general attitude of tout le monde official Alberta seems to be that -- so sad, too bad -- under the circumstances there's not much to do but give Merali another generous buyout, not at all dissimilar from the one he got from Alberta taxpayers when he left Capital Health when it was absorbed into AHS in May 2008. What's more, they can't really talk about it, because it's a contractual matter. Lawyers, ya know…

Now, when you really think about this, it doesn't make sense. Either Merali followed the rules -- as Mr. Horne insisted at a news conference yesterday morning -- in which case he should still be working for AHS. Or he didn't, in which case he doesn't deserve a severance package.

Either way, Alberta's taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for another buyout, which given Merali's presumed salary is unlikely to be much less than half a million dollars and could theoretically be more -- even though he only returned to Alberta to work for the Alberta health care system three months ago!

After his well-greased departure from Alberta in 2008, Merali travelled to a public sector job in Ontario where, lo and behold, he became involved in a public controversy about his expense account activities.

But that doesn't seem to have been a problem when somebody in Alberta decided they wanted him back. Indeed, just before he took the AHS position, he'd been offered and briefly accepted a job as the province's comptroller general.

Mr. Horne kept insisting at his highly unsatisfactory press conference yesterday that he would get to the bottom of all the nasty questions arising from this affair and that Albertans would soon have all the answers. But not just yet.

Indeed, at times during the news conference, Mr. Horne seemed like something astronomers might speculate about – a black hole into which information disappears and never comes out again.

"I am outraged, and the government of Alberta is outraged, by what has been revealed here," the minister stated. But if you wanted to know, say, if Merali was expensing the same sorts of things in his new position with AHS, well, Horne didn't have an answer to that just now. (In fact, the frequently maligned Stephen Duckett put a stop to executives expensing alcoholic beverages during his tenure as CEO of AHS, so at least Merali wasn't expensing wine.)

Likewise, if you wanted to know why Merali was hired when he had a history of this sort of horsing around, well, the minister hadn't known anything about that. (Apparently no one had any idea about his adventures at Capital Health until they saw the CBC request … whenever that was. Except of course, Sheila Weatherill, the former Capital Health CEO who has sat on the AHS Board since last February and thus should have been aware of the hiring. We'll get to her in a moment.)

And if you want to know just how big Merali's inevitable second buyout will be, well, you'll have to be patient and wait for that too.

Indeed, if you wish to know what was discussed when Horne (then a consultant for AHS) broke bread with Merali at Jack's Grill back in May 2005, well, Horne couldn't recall.

But he did remember one thing -- which became the main news hit of the day.

Wednesday night, he said, he got a call from Weatherill, who herself got a buyout of $1.5 million when she left Capital Health and who had approved all of Merali's expenses back in the day. "She offered her resignation," Horne said, "and I accepted her resignation." Since Weatherill was a volunteer board member, at least we won't have to cut her another cheque.

So this gets us where, exactly? As a wag of my acquaintance put it: "Health Minister Fred Horne was so outraged Sheila Weatherill authorized Allaudin Merali to spend more than $200 of taxpayers' money in 2005 on lunch with Fred Horne, back when he was just a health policy consultant, that now he's punishing Ms. Weatherill by forcing her off the board and using taxpayer money to write a giant cheque to Mr. Merali. This way, we can all be confident everyone has learned their lesson!"

When the dust settles, we'll have spent about a million dollars in less than five years just getting rid of the same extravagant guy, twice.

But we can't afford to spend the same amount to keep a residence for vulnerable seniors open in Carmangay!

What's wrong with this picture?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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