The day that Alluadin Merali left his post as CFO of Alberta Health Services (AHS) was the day Albertans entered the Twilight Zone. Like the ordinary folk in Rod Sterling’s TV show who find themselves thrust into a surreal alternate universe we watch in amazement as the PC government spins and gyrates in the public relations nightmare soon to be known as the Merali Affair.
Mr Merali parted company with AHS just hours before the intrepid CBC was going to expose the expenses he claimed during his tenure as CFO of Capital Health Region (now part of AHS). Between 2005 and 2008 Mr Merali, then Executive VP and CFO, claimed $346,208 for “expenses” ranging from a new car phone for his Mercedes to two butlers at $30/hour. These expense claims were approved by his CEO, Sheila Weatherill.
Our transition into the Twilight Zone began when the PC government and its agencies mistook public service for entitlement. How else can we explain Health Minister Horne’s statement that Mr Merali’s expense claims were legitimate under the expense policies then in place at the Capital Health Region?
But Mr Horne’s validation of Mr Merali’s imprudent claims creates another conundrum. If Mr Merali didn’t do anything wrong as CFO of the Capital Health Region why was he pushed out of his position as CFO at the AHS?
The AHS says Mr Merali is gone because the release of his expense records “put AHS and Mr Merali in a difficult position” and the AHS was concerned that “it would detract from his ability to act as CFO, and [had] taken these difficult but necessary steps to ensure public confidence”. *
In the Twilight Zone, people don’t get fired for terrible judgment which results in Albertans reimbursing them for personal expenditures like $500 of glasswork for the Mercedes. They get fired because they embarrass the government.
Minister Horne’s view that Mr Merali’s expense claims were legitimate is supported by Sheila Weatherill. Ms Weatherill was CEO of the Capital Health Region. She approved Mr Merali’s expense claims. Ms Weatherill says “Capital Health had appropriate expenditure policies that were consistent with other public sector organizations”.**She made this statement when she resigned as director on the AHS board.
Apparently in the Twilight Zone, a CEO overseeing a $2.5 billion organization is not expected to exercise common sense when presented with over the top expense claims. If the claim fits within the policy (lord knows how) the taxpayer must pay. However if the CEO’s lack of judgment comes to light four years later, the (now) ex-CEO is must resign her directorship of the board of the (now) successor to the (now) defunct Capital Region because … why? Is it because her continued presence on the AHS board would be an embarrassment to the government?
It’s awfully dark out here in the Twilight Zone…are you still with me? Good, let’s press on.
Finance Minister Horner says the $346,208 Mr Merali claimed for reimbursement would never have been allowed under the government’s expense policies in existence at the time***Oh I get it. In the Twilight Zone, it’s okay for a health region to spend $2.5 billion in taxpayers’ dollars implementing the government’s healthcare strategy in a way that violates the government’s own expense policies.
Cue the eerie music…the Merali Affair is about to get a whole lot weirder. Mr Merali was hotly sought after by not one, but two, government agencies. AHS successfully landed Mr Merali by beating a competing offer from Doug Horner, Finance Minister and President of the Treasure Board. Mr Horner’s offer was for the post of Chief Controller. Had Mr Merali accepted this offer he would have been responsible for all of the controllers for all of the government departments managing a $40 billion budget (boggles the mind, doesn’t it).
Mr Horner says Mr Merali was his top choice because Mr Merali was experienced in international development and public organizations. What Mr Horner fails to mention is that one of those public organizations was Capital Health and that during Mr Merali’s time as CFO, he and CEO Ms Weatherill were sharply criticized by the Auditor General for misleading auditing practices. They had been warned for 3 consecutive years that their accounting practices were off side before the Auditor General resorted to censure. Ms Weatherill brushed the incident aside with the comment that it was all a “misunderstanding”.
Furthermore, the Finance Minister and the AHS knew about the controversy surrounding Mr Merali’s involvement in the Ontario eHealth expense account scandal when they offered Mr Merali the top financial job in their respective organizations. (Mr Merali was a consultant on the Ontario eHealth project and expensed incidentals such as $14.95 drink tabs over and above his $2,750 daily rate and his $75 per diem expense rate). Mr Horner said he was not concerned because exorbitant expenses weren’t allowed under the government’s policy.****The AHS discussed its current policies, practices and expectations with Mr Merali and didn’t think he would do it again.*****
In the Twilight Zone, clear evidence of a serious lack of judgment and an overblown sense of entitlement is not sufficient reason to disqualify a candidate from the highest position in a government department or agency overseeing the expenditure of billions of dollars because the candidate has been talked to and he won’t do it again.
Not to worry; the government and AHS are taking action. Premier Redford is “shocked and disappointed”****Mr Horne is “outraged” and is going to have “very very serious” discussions with the AHS board about its expense claims policy and how Mr Merali landed the CFO job in the first place***The AHS will post all future approved expenses (but not the whack of expenses that have been paid out since 2009) of the CEO and his direct reports on its webpage. And the Auditor General will review AHS policies and practices and suggest improvements. Apparently the idea of a forensic audit never crossed anyone’s mind!
Will this flurry of activity have any effect? Judge for yourself. Mr Horner says the Merali Affair “is a fairly isolated incident in terms of the Capital Health situation.”***
Poor Mr Horner has been in the Twilight Zone so long he can’t even begin to understand what’s wrong with that statement. Without a forensic audit Mr Horner has no way of knowing whether the Merali Affair is an “isolated incident”. Without a forensic audit the Auditory General can’t possibly understand the depth and scope of the potential misuse of expense account guidelines; and without a forensic audit, the government, the AHS and the public will never be able to identify any other “Mr Meralis” and eject them in order to protect taxpayers’ dollars that should be spent on healthcare services instead of replacing the glass in a senior executive’s Mercedes.
Unfortunately, that’s not how things are done in the Twilight Zone. Cue the eerie music…
*Calgary Herald, Aug 2, 2012, p A1
**National Post, Aug 3, 2012, p A5
***Calgary Herald, Aug 3, 2012, p A4 and A1
****Calgary Herald, Aug 4, 2012, p A5 and A6
*****Huffington Post Online, Aug 5, 2012