Alberta Health deputy minister Carl Amrhein personally lobbied for funding for the private alternative health foundation of a wealthy Calgary oilman while he was official administrator of Alberta Health Services, several former civil servants have told CBC News.
The sources said they believed Amrhein was in a conflict of interest because he was openly lobbying Alberta Health for funding for Pure North S'Energy, the foundation of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. co-founder Allan Markin.
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"I told him quite frankly I thought he was in a conflict," said one source, who was directly lobbied by Amrhein, adding that, "as official administrator, he should not be lobbying for money for a particular organization."
A second source also said they had been directly lobbied by Amrhein.
"I was astounded," the former senior civil servant said, adding later: "How can people like him not recognize that this is a conflict of interest?"
A third source, another former senior civil servant, also said they directly told Amrhein he was in a conflict of interest and it was wrong for him to be lobbying for funding for Pure North.
As official administrator from November 2014 to August 2015, Amrhein was effectively Alberta Health Services' (AHS) most senior official. Alberta Health Services is the operating arm of Alberta Health and receives its funding directly from the health ministry.
Two of the sources said Amrhein's close association with, and support of, Pure North was an open secret; it was discussed privately at joint meetings between senior Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services (AHS) executives.
"He actually believed in what they were doing and believed (Alberta Health) should be funding it," said one source.
All the sources said they subsequently learned Amrhein was a participant in the Pure North health program, which features large doses of vitamin D and other supplements. Alberta Health had previously determined the foundation's treatments were not adequately supported by science and some may cause adverse reactions in participants.
Signed $4.2 million grant with foundation
Amrhein did not respond to an interview request from CBC News. Through a ministry spokesperson he issued a statement that did not address the issue of his lobbying for Pure North and his alleged conflict of interest.
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman also issued a statement that did not address the lobbying and conflict of interest issues. Hoffman has repeatedly refused to answer questions about what, if anything, Amrhein disclosed to her about his relationship with Pure North and Markin.
In October 2016, Amrhein signed, on behalf of the ministry, a $4.2-million grant with Pure North for a primary-care clinic in Calgary staffed by nurse practitioners.. A health ministry spokesperson told CBC News Amrhein's involvement with Pure North was "fully disclosed" to the province's ethics commissioner when he became deputy minister in August 2015.
Some of the former civil servants agreed to speak to CBC News because they believe the full extent of Amrhein's association with, and support of, Pure North may not have been disclosed to the ethics commissioner, to Hoffman, or to government employees who report to him. They requested anonymity, because generally they are bound by confidentiality rules related to their former senior positions within government.
Last month, CBC News revealed the close relationship between Amrhein and Pure North and Markin.
While provost of the University of Alberta, Amrhein twice provided letters of support for Pure North and Markin, who is a major donor to the university.
In 2012, Amrhein provided an endorsement for Pure North as part of an attempt by Markin to keep the foundation's program operating at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), the giant Calgary oil and gas firm he had co-founded.
CNRL subsequently barred Pure North from directly offering its program to CNRL employees after it conducted an independent risk management assessment.
Pure North twice used one of Amrhein's support letters to bolster funding requests to the Alberta government.
In December 2014, Pure North asked then-premier Jim Prentice for $10 million. Internal Alberta Health documents show the foundation included Amrhein's letter in the package of documents sent to Prentice. Amrhein at that time was AHS official administrator.
Minister and deputy minister won't answer questions
Internal Alberta Health documents show that while he was deputy minister, Amrhein and his wife participated in the Pure North program.
Emails show that in January 2016, Amrhein agreed to meet with Markin on a Sunday evening at the Edmonton airport. Pure North offered to fly a nurse to the meeting to take the blood of Amrhein and his wife as part of the program. Amrhein agreed.
Because Amrhein and Hoffman refuse to answer questions, it is not known if Amrhein or his wife paid to be part of the program. Nor is it known if they reimbursed Pure North for flying a nurse to Edmonton specifically to take their blood.
Ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler told CBC News last month that when Amrhein became deputy minister, he disclosed to her office that he was a participant in Pure North's alternative health program.
She refused to say whether Amrhein had disclosed anything more about his relationship with the health foundation, saying she could only legally reveal what Amrhein had given her permission to disclose.
Trussler said she questioned Amrhein about his signing of the October 2016 grant. She said Amrhein told her that he merely signed the agreement in his capacity as deputy minister, after the minister had signed off.
"I know the last [grant], on the nurse practitioners, the decision was made elsewhere," Trussler told CBC News last month.
Contradictory information from ethics commissioner
But Trussler provided confusing and contradictory information to CBC News about what steps she took to determine if Amrhein was in a conflict, and when she took those steps.
Trussler initially said she "investigated" whether Amrhein made the decision to fund Pure North's nurse practitioner clinic. But in the same brief interview, she said, "I didn't make an investigation, I asked some questions."
The commissioner said her questioning of Amrhein took place "recently," although she could not say whether it was after CBC News published stories on Pure North.
In a subsequent email however, her office's chief administrative officer, Kent Ziegler, suggested Trussler only questioned Amrhein about his signing of the Pure North contract after a CBC News reporter called her office seeking information about what Amrhein disclosed. Trussler called back the reporter roughly an hour after the initial call.
Internal Alberta Health documents show Pure North had received $10 million in funding in December 2013 to expand its unproven alternative health program, ultimately to several thousand seniors.
Former health minister Fred Horne approved the funding against the advice of ministry staff. They had concluded the program was not adequately supported by science, could not prove the health and economic outcomes it claimed and could cause adverse effects in participants.
A subsequent review found Pure North could prove none of the improved outcomes it had promised for the $10 million in funding.
Two of the former senior civil servants said they could not understand why Alberta's auditor general had not conducted a review of how Pure North came to get the $10 million in funding and how it was spent. A spokesperson for the auditor general's office could not say if an audit is planned.
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