Alberta public interest commissioner dismisses whistleblower complaints from Dr. Anny Sauvageau
But former chief medical examiner Dr. Anny Sauvageau was treated unfairly, report says
Alberta's public interest commissioner has dismissed former chief medical examiner Dr. Anny Sauvageau's allegations that senior Alberta Justice officials grossly mismanaged a public contract, politically interfered in her office's operations and then, after she complained, retaliated by not renewing her contract.
In a report released Friday, Peter Hourihan says there was insufficient evidence for a finding of wrongdoing on any of the allegations under the Public Interest Disclosure Act.
Despite this, the report validates many of Sauvageau's main allegations against the Justice department and its top officials, and finds she was treated unfairly.
"Though the allegations of wrongdoing are not supported, our investigation highlighted deficiencies in management, procurement and human resource services practices within the department," the report states.
"The investigation also highlighted how poor communication between managers and employees can result in a breakdown of the employment relationship and manifest into larger issues."
Hourihan's investigation took nearly two years. He said he reviewed more than 5,500 records and conducted more than 40 interviews, including 37 with government employees.
But he made special note of the fact that a Justice department lawyer "was present during interviews with witnesses and department employees." He says this was a "significant concern" that he would later address separately.
Sauvageau's allegations primarily relate to a controversial decision by Alberta Justice to reopen and revise the procurement process for transporting bodies for the chief medical examiner's office under intense pressure from the Alberta Funeral Service Association (AFSA).
In July 2015, CBC News revealed Justice officials reopened the public procurement process against the initial advice of a department lawyer and a procurement director.
After the AFSA met personally with then-Justice minister Jonathan Denis, the department allowed the AFSA to effectively negotiate some of the terms of the revised contract. It also allowed the industry association to vet the contract before it was released for public tender.
No political interference
Sauvageau has alleged her contract was not renewed because of her strong opposition to the department effectively capitulating to the demands of the AFSA, for what she claimed were political reasons. The report says there was a lack of evidence to support the claim decisions were politically motivated.
The commissioner says there was no conclusive evidence the non-renewal of Sauvageau's contract was linked to her whistleblower complaints. A "strained relationship" existed between her and the department a few months before she complained to his office, and ultimately the non-renewal of her contract was a "human resource management decision."
The report says Justice officials treated Sauvageau unfairly and, in part, used complaints they knew were unsubstantiated to justify not renewing her contract - even as they immediately dismissed her allegations of political interference without investigating them.
The report says records showed there was even an attempt to solicit complaints and comments about Sauvageau from both inside and outside the department.
The conflict between senior officials and Sauvageau began with the arrival of a new assistant deputy minister, Maryann Everett, and with the re-opening of a procurement process related to body transportation, the report found.
Sauvageau oversaw the creation of a contract between the province and the companies - mostly funeral homes - that transport bodies for the office of the chief medical examiner. After years of complaints about poor service, the contract was designed to set standards for these service providers and also rein in costs for transportation, which had ballooned in recent years.
The AFSA rejected the new contract and threatened to withdraw service in rural Alberta.
Jonathan Denis met directly with AFSA representatives and shortly after, the department reopened and revised the procurement process, even allowing the AFSA to vet the changes and sign off on the final version.
Hourihan notes there "were no minutes taken or official record of the meeting."
"Poor" contract management
Hourihan's report says the department's handling of the contract procurement process was "poor," and gave the AFSA an "inappropriate" level of influence.
"Negotiating and collaboratively revising the terms and conditions of a standing offer with potential vendors during an active solicitation is inappropriate," it states. "Moreover, external entities (the AFSA in this case) should not be part of the approval process for a public procurement by the government.
The department's lawyer and head of procurement had both warned against bending to AFSA pressure to renegotiate the contract, saying it would set a bad precedent that would put the government at risk - which is exactly what Hourihan concluded.
"The department's decision to negotiate with the AFSA presented a risk to the department and the Government of Alberta in general," the report says.
The report also indirectly chastises Denis for meeting with the AFSA during the contract's procurement process. That resulted in ministry officials apparently mistakenly believing Denis wanted Justice to negotiate a new body-transportation contract with the AFSA.
One of the guiding principles of procurement is being fair, transparent and treating all vendors equally. In the case of the body-transportation procurement, Hourihan found the department was not transparent because it did not publicly disclose its negotiations with the AFSA, which he noted does not represent all funeral companies.
Sauvageau, in her complaint, alleged the new body-transportation contract constituted a gross mismanagement of public funds and that Justice officials had repeatedly interfered in her office's operations by revising the contract without her approval.
Hourihan dismissed these allegations. He said the management of the contract, while poor, did not reach the level of gross mismanagement. And he concluded Sauvageau had no authority over the administration of the contract.
But his report provides differing explanations for why Justice reopened and negotiated revisions to the contract against the advice of its own lawyer and procurement director.
Hourihan says the department acted in the public interest when it revised the procurement process because it was concerned there would not be sufficient body-transportation service.
But he says that, although the department knew this was not "best contract and procurement practice," it was thought Denis, during his meeting with the AFSA, had "committed to adjusting the terms of the standing offer."
Sauvageau is suing Alberta Justice for wrongful dismissal. None of the allegations in her lawsuit has been proven in court.
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