Alberta's former chief medical examiner has launched a $5-million wrongful dismissal lawsuit against Alberta Justice, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis and four senior government bureaucrats.

In a statement of claim filed Tuesday, Dr. Anny Sauvageau makes sensational allegations of political interference in the operations of the medical examiner's office.

The most controversial allegation is that Alberta Justice negotiated a costly new body transportation contract without her approval in order to appease the Alberta Funeral Services Association and curry political favour in rural ridings. She also claims she was ordered not to fire an employee, even though human resources recommended the worker be let go.

Litany of complaints

Sauvageau alleges that Alberta Justice officials ignored financial analysis, which found the new body transportation contract was not cost effective, as well as a litany of documented complaints about the existing body transportation service.

The complaints included:

  • A body of a deceased being placed for transportation in the open box of a pickup truck.
  • Funeral services staff taking pictures of crime scenes for personal collections.
  • Funeral services staff misrepresenting themselves at scenes as being from the chief medical examiner’s office.
  • Funeral homes charging both the medical examiner's office and the deceased's family for transportation of the same body.
  • Funeral homes overcharging the medical examiner's office for body transportation.

In September, CBC News obtained documents showing Sauvageau had repeatedly complained to Alberta Justice deputy minister Tim Grant about what she called "regular political and bureaucratic interference in all aspects of the death investigation system."

What does the chief medical examiner do?

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner investigates the cause and manner of sudden or unexplained deaths, including:

  • deaths during police intervention
  • deaths of children in foster care
  • deaths of inmates in custody
  • deaths of patients in mental health facilities

The office also oversees the transportation of bodies from accidents and crime scenes.

The office derives its authority from the Fatality Inquiries Act.

Denis has publicly denied there was evidence to support an investigation into her allegations.

Sauvageau alleges in her lawsuit that senior Alberta Justice officials retaliated by reneging on a promise to renew her contract, then fabricated performance issues to justify their decision. The lawsuit details several promises, both written and verbal, Sauvageau claims were made to her about renewing her contract for a five-year term.

Sauvageau became chief medical examiner on July 1, 2011, and her last day was Dec. 31, 2014.

Sauvageau is seeking a total of $5.15 million in the lawsuit, which names Alberta Justice, Denis, Alberta Justice deputy ministers Grant and Kim Armstrong, and assistant deputy ministers Maryann Everett and Donavon Young as defendants.

No statement of defence has been filed and none of the allegations contained in the lawsuit have been proven in court.

Political interference alleged

Jonathan Denis

Justice Minister Jonathan Denis is one of the defendants named in Sauvageau's lawsuit. (CBC)

The lawsuit alleges Sauvageau was under "intense pressure" in 2014 to approve amendments to the body transportation contract, "in order to appease the Alberta Funeral Services Association and the rural vote."

Sauvageau says in the lawsuit she opposed the new contract because it was too costly. She claims she pointed out that the chief medical examiner's office would need to spend an additional $3 million over three years to meet requests made by the Funeral Services Association.

The lawsuit claims that when Sauvageau objected, Everett told her, "You think too much of the taxpayers."

The lawsuit alleges Sauvageau's concerns were overruled and Alberta Justice prepared the new contract after meetings, from which she was excluded, between the department and the Funeral Services Association.

Sauvageau claims she sent Premier Jim Prentice a briefing note that described her objections to the new contract, laid out the documented problems with the body transportation service, and detailed political interference in the operations of her office.

Jim Prentice

The lawsuit alleges Sauvageau told Premier Jim Prentice about political interference in her office. (CBC)

The lawsuit says Prentice told her in a Sept. 25, 2014, letter that he would not intervene or meet with her because she had already complained to Alberta's public interest commissioner about political interference.

The next day, the lawsuit claims, Alberta Justice deputy minister Tim Grant told Sauvageau her contract would not be renewed. Sauvageau alleges Grant did not provide a reason for the decision.

Staffing decision quashed

Sauvageau also claims in the lawsuit she was told not to fire a member of her staff because the employee might be related to a senior staff member of then-premier Dave Hancock.

The lawsuit alleges that human resources had recommended the employee be fired.

The employee had reported that a colleague was going to come into the office with a gun and kill everyone, but an investigation by HR determined the complaint was "malicious."

The lawsuit alleges Everett told Sauvageau that Grant "was forbidding the firing of the employee because it was feared she might be related to George Samoil, Hancock's deputy chief of staff, operations.

It is not clear from the lawsuit documents whether Samoil, who now works for Premier Jim Prentice, would have had any knowledge of the alleged interference.

Pressure to view body

As CBC News reported in September, internal documents show that last May, former deputy ministers Peter Watson and Steve MacDonald asked for special treatment by the chief medical examiner's office in relation to a specific case.

Sauvageau's lawsuit alleges Watson "pressured the death investigator to modify the policies and procedures with respect to body viewing," which she alleges is a violation of the Fatality Inquiries Act.

At the time, Watson was the deputy minister of executive council, the most powerful bureaucrat in the provincial government. He is now chairman of the federal National Energy Board.

The lawsuit alleges Watson called the chief medical examiner's office on behalf of a close relative of a former cabinet minister.

Sauvageau claims MacDonald, then the deputy minister of advanced education, called to request information on the autopsy findings and to ensure the body would soon be released to the family.

CBC News has confirmed the deceased was Shazmin Khan, 19.

Sources told CBC News that she is a relative of current Service Alberta Minister Stephen Khan.

In an emailed statement Friday, Khan's press secretary said Khan is not related to Shazmin Khan and the minister said he did not intervene in the case. 

If you have information about this story, or anything else you think is newsworthy, contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of the story misspelled the first name of Shazmin Khan.
    Feb 06, 2015 4:09 PM MT