After a two-month probe into the botched firing of Ministry of Health employees, Victoria labour lawyer Marcia McNeil says she could not figure out who made the decision to terminate, or why.
A "preconceived theory of employee misconduct" tainted an internal inquiry into seven health researchers, and the failure to document that investigation led to a flawed decision process without accountability, she concluded in a report released on Friday.
"Although the deputy minister signed the letters of dismissal for each of the employees, no one has taken responsibility for making the effective recommendation to dismiss the employees," Ms. McNeil wrote. "Instead, those most likely to have made the effective recommendation all pointed to someone else."
In September, 2012, health minister Margaret MacDiarmid held a news conference to announce a string of firings in the ministry's pharmaceutical research division. She said the RCMP's corporate crimes division was investigating allegations of breach of privacy and conflict of interest involving inappropriate access of medical information.
More than two years later, there is no evidence of an RCMP investigation and the government has mostly retreated on its allegations. Most of the individuals have either settled wrongful dismissal lawsuits out of court or been rehired. One of the researchers killed himself, for which his family blames his dismissal.
The government asked Ms. McNeil in early October to look at the process that led to the dismissals. Her report deals with direct government employees, although an eighth individual, a contractor, was also dismissed.
In her 56-page report, she found the process was "flawed from the outset" – the workers were subjected to intimidation tactics during interviews by swarms of investigators, and they were not given a fair chance to defend themselves. She also found no evidence that legal advice was sought to determine if the firings were justified.
But Ms. McNeil said she could not answer the most difficult questions before her. "This case is lacking the reports, briefing notes, meeting notes or other documents which are frequently prepared in situations where discipline may be contemplated," she wrote. "This dearth of documents has granted the decision-makers … an opportunity to avoid taking ownership of the decision."
Opposition leader John Horgan said the report makes clear there was an abuse of power, but the government limited the scope of Ms. McNeil's probe to avoid accountability for senior officials.
"This is reprehensible," he told reporters. "I don't know how the public can take any comfort that the government of British Columbia has been open and transparent about what they did to seven individuals, one of whom took his life."
Elaine McKnight, head of the provincial Public Service Agency, said in an interview she accepts the findings and promised that any government workers accused of misconduct will be accorded due process in future.
"It is really troubling, Ms. McNeil's report shows the investigation wasn't conducted in any way that anybody would want. We can't be satisfied with what happened here," Ms. McKnight said. "All of us feel we should have done better and we need to do better in the future."
Ms. McNeil noted that many key individuals refused to meet with her. One of them was Graham Whitmarsh, the deputy minister of health who signed the dismissal letters. Through a lawyer on Friday, Mr. Whitmarsh said that he believed that legal advice from the Attorney-General's office had been obtained to confirm there was just cause for the dismissals.
Government House Leader Mike de Jong issued a statement in response to Ms. McNeil's findings. "It is deeply troubling to learn that Ms. McNeil found there was lack of due process and lack of understanding of existing procedures that compromised the investigation."