Membership at exclusive golf club claimed by former AHS executive

Former senior Capital Health chief financial officer Allaudin Merali expensed more than $1,800 for a membership at a private Edmonton golf club

Former senior Capital Health chief financial officer Allaudin Merali expensed more than $1,800 for a membership at a private Edmonton golf club

New documents recently obtained by CBC News through Freedom of Information show Capital Health chief executive officer Sheila Weatherill approved the 2007 membership for Merali at the Mayfair Golf & Country Club.

Friends of Medicare executive director Sandra Azocar said this kind of spending during a time of deep health-care cuts was unconscionable.

"At that time we were seeing the long waiting lists, the waiting times," she said. "We were seeing people on gurneys in the hallways.  We were seeing people having to wait an extensive amount of time for surgery. 

"When you’re looking at an executive buying a golf membership, close to $2000, it is not OK," Azocar said.

The documents also show Merali picked up the tab for numerous group meals while at conferences all over the world. He expensed $871.43 for a Feb. 3, 2008 dinner at the Villa Sortino Italian Restaurant in Seoul, South Korea.

In August 2007 in Brisbane, Australia, he picked up a tab for $733.46 for a Treasury reception, another $408.53 at the Cha Cha Char Wine Bar and $359.41 at Il Centro Restaurant. At a conference in Victoria, B.C. in 2005, Merali picked up three dinner tabs totalling $1473.40.

"It shows he’s got a total disrespect for taxpayer money but this is what happens when you have a party in power for 41 years," Wildrose MLA Shane Saskiw said.

"They hire people who seem like this is their own personal piggy bank. We need to respect taxpayer dollars and this is just very disrespectful."

Merali fired after CBC exposes expenses

Alberta Health Services fired Merali in August the same day CBC published a story about how he spent tens of thousands of dollars on lavish meals on high-end restaurants, bottles of wine, and accessories and repairs for his Mercedes-Benz car.

The documents showed 146 expense claims totalling nearly $350,000 between 2005 and 2008.

Weatherill signed off on Merali’s expenses. She resigned from the AHS board shortly after the Merali story broke.

Alberta Health Services chief operating officer Chris Mazurkewich told a news conference at the time that Merali agreed he could not continue as chief financial officer.

Earlier this week, CBC received another nearly 350 pages of documents. There was no explanation from AHS why the additional documents surfaced now.

These documents, like the previous ones, show numerous meals at high-end restaurants including Jack’s Grill, and Normands.

On July 21, 2005, Merali expensed a more than $400 dinner at Normand’s at which he hosted then consultant Fred Horne, now Alberta’s health minister, and Brian Hlus, Capital Health’s former government relations director. Horne has said he can’t recall dinners with Merali.

Merali Denies Any Improper Spending

Last week, Merali issued a statement in which he defended his expense claims, saying he was being unfairly singled out for expenses incurred as part of his job.

"l cannot accept that my past expenses are held up to a different standard and reported in the media without context and without regard to simple fairness, so as to cast implicit doubts on my integrity," Merali said.

Last week, AHS released an external audit which found there was no supporting documentation for $103,302 of the $370,000 in expenses claimed by Merali. But that did not contravene Capital Health policy at the time.

The audit found that $5,613 of expenses, including $2,300 to install a cell phone in his Mercedes, breached its expense policy.

In his statement, Merali said he did not benefit personally from any of his expense claims.

"The imputation that I simply lived a high life at the taxpayer's expense is an invention of sheer malice," he said.

"I was a senior host and negotiator of numerous partnerships, business deals and relationships of a $3 billion organization," he said. "I hosted appropriately, not for my own personal enjoyment."

Alberta Health Services board chair Stephen Lockwood said last week he is satisfied that new tighter, more transparent rules for expenses have resolved the expense-claim issue.

But Azocar says the fact these recent documents were not initially disclosed to CBC shows more needs to be done.

"I still think there needs to be a very, very clear culture of what it is appropriate, when you’re talking about using taxpayers’ money," she said.

"And we need to make sure that the money that is being given to Alberta Health Services in the budget is being used for the appropriate things."