Alberta's ethics commissioner has cleared former health deputy minister Carl Amrhein of conflict-of-interest allegations involving his relationship with Pure North S'Energy, the private health foundation of wealthy Calgary philanthropist Allan Markin.
The then Wildrose official opposition requested an ethics investigation in May, following a CBC News investigation that revealed Amrhein signed, on behalf of the ministry, a $4.2 million grant with Pure North for a nurse-practitioner clinic despite the fact he was a participant in the foundation's alternative-health program.
Pure North is a privately run, non-profit foundation that offers an unproven alternative health program involving high doses of supplements, including vitamin D, Against the advice of senior ministry officials, the government of Premier Alison Redford gave Pure North a $10-million grant in December 2013 to further expand an existing program, which was ultimately offered to more than 7,300 Alberta seniors — without any ethical oversight.
The CBC News investigation also revealed Amrhein lobbied for more money for the foundation while he was official administrator of Alberta Health Services (AHS) and had provided endorsements of Pure North's program in his past role as provost of the University of Alberta.
But in her report, released publicly on Tuesday, Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler found Amrhein had not breached the Public Service Act and had not lobbied for Pure North.
"He did not make a decision in the course of carrying out his office knowing that the decision might further his or a direct associate's private interest," Trussler wrote, adding that Health Minister Sarah Hoffman made all final decisions regarding Pure North and that Amrhein "had nothing to gain" from the approval of the $4.2 million grant. Alberta Health later cancelled the funding.
No breach of code of conduct
Trussler also found Amrhein had not breached the public service's code of conduct and ethics, or Alberta Health's supplemental code, although she singled out a key issue with the latter. The code is supposed to ensure that Alberta Health employees disclose situations that might create even the perception of a conflict of interest.
"The problem with the supplemental code is that it does not make provisions for the deputy minister," she wrote. "He probably should have filled out the conflicts (of interest) form but there is no procedure for his situation."
United Conservative Party interim leader Nathan Cooper said the commissioner's report again underscores the need for stronger conflict-of-interest rules in Alberta, especially as they relate to senior government officials.
"Those folks have a very strong ability to lobby the process," Cooper said Wednesday. "Yet the legislation doesn't apply equally. It's another example that this legislation needs to be reviewed and needs to be strengthened."
Amrhein, through his lawyer, declined an interview request. But the report states Amrhein "asserts that at no time did he advocate for Pure North. Minister Hoffman confirmed that (Mr.) Amrhein never advocated for Pure North to her.
"It is clear that at times he facilitated Pure North's access to government but he says that he also did the same for other organizations as part of his mandate was to make the upper levels of both AHS and Alberta Health more responsive to the public," the report states.
Last month, Amrhein announced he was resigning to become provost and vice-president of academics at the Aga Khan University, which is based in Karachi, Pakistan.
Hoffman has refused repeated interview requests from CBC News over the past seven months, including for this story. Her press secretary, Tim Wilson, has also refused to provide answers to specific questions over the past several months.
In an emailed statement, Pure North said it was not surprised by the outcome as Amrhein "always dealt with Pure North in an objective, transparent and professional manner."
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