Neil Wilkinson's honoraria claims questioned by critics

It was supposed to be a part-time job, but Neil Wilkinson routinely claimed 12 to 15-hour work days which led him to rack up exponentially more in honoraria than his health-region counterparts.

Capital Health board chair claimed exponentially more than other board chairs

Critics question the hundreds of thousands of dollars of honoraria claimed by Neil Wilkinson during his six years as Capital Health board chair. (File photo)

It was supposed to be a part-time job, but during his tenure as Capital Health board chair, Neil Wilkinson routinely claimed 12 to 15-hour work days which led him to rack up exponentially more in honoraria than his health-region counterparts.

After Capital Health was folded into what is now Alberta Health Services (AHS), Wilkinson, a well-known Conservative party supporter, was chosen by a Tory-dominated committee as the province's ethics commissioner.

Opposition critics say the questionable honoraria claims of Wilkinson, and his party affiliation, highlight the need to reform the current system for appointing independent officers of the legislature.

"It raises serious questions again about the way that people are chosen for these high positions and the oversight and transparency (that exists)," Liberal Leader David Swann said.

In the legislature Thursday, Swann called on Premier Rachel Notley to establish an independent public appointments commission to review candidates for senior roles in the Alberta public service, similar to Ontario's Public Service Secretariat.

Notley said only that her government is committed to reviewing all agencies, boards and commissions in Alberta.

Based on a tip, CBC News obtained through freedom of information the honoraria Wilkinson claimed while he was board chair of Capital Health from April 2002 to May 2008.

The documents show Wilkinson claimed about $450,000 in addition to his expense claims.

Wilkinson's honoraria was often double or triple that of his counterparts at the other health regions. In fiscal 2007 - 2008, he claimed $96,000 in honoraria.

Wilkinson routinely claimed to have worked days that stretched past 12 hours, with numerous 15-hour days recorded on his monthly honoraria claim sheets. His handwritten claims however, provide little explanation of what work he did during the apparently grueling schedule.

For example, on May 24, 2002, Wilkinson said he worked 15 hours, from 9 a.m. to midnight. His explanation simply reads, "Aboriginal dinner." On Oct. 6, 2003, Wilkinson claimed 9.5 hours for "Staff sod turning MLA". He claimed 14 hours for Sept. 6, 2005. The reason provided? "MLA".

Wildrose finance critic Derek Fildebrandt says there should be a full review of Wilkinson's expense and honoraria claims.​ (John Zazula/CBC News)
"I have a hard time believing that (Wilkinson) would meet with an MLA for 14 hours a day," Wildrose finance critic Derek Fildebrandt said.

"These are unbelievable documents that I don't think anybody would believe are credible," he said.

Wilkinson did not respond to emails to his personal address. He could not be reached by phone.

In an emailed statement, AHS said "many of the expenses incurred by Mr. Wilkinson and (honoraria) amounts claimed would be unacceptable under current Alberta Health Services policies and practices.

"Following the creation of Alberta Health Services, new guidelines were created limiting how much remuneration and expense reimbursement AHS Board members can receive," the statement said.

Claims while on vacation

On Oct. 2, 2003, Wilkinson claimed he worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at "Travel meeting MLA." The next day yielded a similar workload: nine hours for "Travel phone meeting."

But Wilkinson's expenses, released to CBC News in December through a separate freedom of information request, show he was staying at a luxury Kelowna resort from Sept. 28 to Oct. 5 on what appears to have been a vacation. There is no indication he expensed the flight to or from British Columbia and his hotel bill — included in his expenses because he sent and received work faxes — shows he had a guest staying with him in the room.

"Maybe MLAs were very eager to join him on vacation and take up his time, in which case I am very grateful to him for giving up his vacation in service to the province," Fildebrandt said.

"But unless MLAs were flying out to the Okanagan to meet him, I think this (raises) a question that the auditor general needs to answer."

Wilkinson's expenses also showed he spent thousands of dollars of public money on sports and cultural events, gifts, and charity fundraisers hosted by Progressive Conservative politicians.

The expenses included $5,000 in 2005 to purchase the Seattle Fairmont Olympic Hotel getaway package from a silent auction by the University Hospital Foundation charity.

Wilkinson could not be reached for comment in December so it is not known if he personally used the Seattle getaway package or repaid the $5,000. But in a statement, he said all his expenses "were for the benefit of maintaining and improving patient care in Edmonton and Alberta.

"The activities and hard work these expenses represented involved many volunteer hours spent away from other activities, family and friends."

Named ethics commissioner

Wilkinson left the board in late May 2008 when the provincial government dissolved Capital Health and the other health regions to form the AHS superboard.

In November 2008, Wilkinson took on another high-profile government role: Alberta's ethics commissioner. He was appointed to the position by a Tory-dominated legislative committee.

Opposition MLAs bitterly opposed the decision, claiming Wilkinson, who had previously donated to PC campaigns, lacked the political neutrality necessary to be an independent legislative officer.

Fildebrandt said the current committee system for appointing legislative officers is broken and Wilkinson's history underscores that.

Liberal Leader David Swann says there needs to be an independent process for choosing Alberta's legislative officers. (CBC)
"(This) is a very clear case of why we need to ensure that officers of the legislature are non-partisan appointments, that these committees are not dominated by a majority of one party or another," Fildebrandt said.

"All of these things need to have broad, all-party or government and opposition support."

Swann said he has already recommended to Premier Rachel Notley that her government strike an independent committee to appoint legislative officers.

"That does not exist now," he said. "I think some of these decisions could have representatives from the legislature, but it has to be dominated by independent people who don't have a partisan interest and a partisan benefit to gain, or a conflict of interest."


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