The B.C. government has settled a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit with two health researchers who were swept up in a mass firing three years ago. The pact clears the way for an independent investigation that could finally explain why the government overreacted to a data breach.
That breach led to the firing of eight Health Ministry workers, including junior researcher Roderick MacIsaac, who killed himself after being interrogated by government officials and fired just two days before the end of his student co-op term.
With Tuesday's out-of-court pact, all of the health researchers have now been reinstated or have received settlements from the province – save for Mr. MacIsaac. The provincial coroner cited "significant personal stress" over the firing as a factor in Mr. MacIsaac's death.
Premier Christy Clark has said that the firings were unfair and "heavy-handed."
The long-running scandal, however, is not over. B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke has hired nine investigators to probe the government's handling of the breach – an investigation he expects will take a year or more to complete.
Rebecca and William Warburton, the two workers whose lawsuits were settled on Tuesday, received an undisclosed cash settlement from the province and an apology of sorts. The Ministry of the Attorney-General says the government's investigation into alleged wrongdoing was flawed, and although there was a data breach, the researchers did not act for personal gain.
But when they were fired by the Health Ministry in September of 2012, the government called a news conference to announce it had asked the RCMP to investigate serious allegations that the eight researchers had inappropriately accessed sensitive medical records.
As they await the results of Mr. Chalke's investigation, Dr. Rebecca Warburton said in a statement that she and her husband expect to resume their work conducting drug testing for the province. "We have been exonerated and our reputations for acting honourably and in the public interest have been restored," she wrote. "It is clear from both the joint statement and the size of the cash settlement that the government shares our view. We anticipate resuming our work with the B.C. government to protect people's health."
Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton would not disclose the cost of the settlement, and said it will be up to Mr. Chalke now to determine if anyone in government should be held accountable for the firings.
"The advantage of the settlement is that the coast is clear for the Ombudsperson to engage in a full and complete investigation – he is not going to to be impeded by any ongoing litigation now. The government will take his recommendations and the public will, I hope, have questions answered."
New Democratic Party MLA Adrian Dix, who led the opposition campaign to reinstate the workers and revive their pharmaceutical research program, said the final settlement shows the province never had cause for the firings. "This is a very significant victory," he said. "These people were all smeared, their reputations damaged. The cost to the individuals and for health research has been catastrophic."
In an attempt to defuse public outcry, the Premier's Office hired an independent lawyer, Marcia McNeil, to probe the firings in 2014. However, Ms. McNeil's report only exacerbated the government's troubles because she could not figure out who made the decision to terminate the employees, or why.
Ms. McNeil did find a "preconceived theory of employee misconduct" tainted the internal investigation that led to the firings, and the failure to document that investigation produced a flawed decision process without accountability.
Deputy Attorney-General Richard Fyfe said the Warburtons are now welcome to apply for access to health data for research purposes once again, opening the door to restoring their work with the independent agency called the Therapeutics Initiative, which had been evaluating the effectiveness and safety of prescription drugs.
"Dr. Rebecca Warburton and Dr. William Warburton acknowledge that they did breach some rules and procedures," Mr. Fyfe said in a written statement. "The province recognizes that such breaches were motivated by their intention to further the research goals of the Ministry of Health, and not for their own personal gain."
A number of prescription drugs were being reviewed by those who were fired, but Dr. William Warburton had been conducting research on the use of anti-psychotics for children. "He had a dollar-a-year contract with the ministry to do work that was saving lives," Mr. Dix noted. "I'm so happy for him today and I'm hopeful that his outstanding research will again be supported by the government."