Province gave $720K to fired chief medical officer Eilish Cleary
Radio-Canada took Health Department to court after it refused to make severance information public
The New Brunswick government gave $720,000 in severance to Dr. Eilish Cleary, the chief medical officer of health it fired in late 2015, something Radio-Canada has learned after a year-and-a-half-long battle with the province over information it believed should be public.
The reason for Cleary's dismissal in December 2015 has never been stated, with provincial officials saying only it was a personnel matter and not "politically motivated."
Cleary had stated she had been fired "without cause" and was considering "next steps" at the time.
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In January 2016, the New Brunswick government reached a severance agreement with her, the details of which were kept confidential.
When Radio-Canada tried to make a request under the right to information law to know what the settlement was, it received a response from the minister of health the next month, declining to disclose the amount and citing privacy protection laws.
Case heads to court
Radio-Canada made a complaint to the access to information and privacy commissioner, saying it believed details of the settlement should be public as it represented important sums of taxpayer money, and confidence in the government depended on transparency.
Nearly a year later, in February 2017, Commissioner Anne Bertrand issued a report that concluded the Department of Health should not have refused to disclose the severance information.
But the Department of Health still refused to give it out.
After that Radio-Canada decided to take the province to court, arguing releasing the information did not constitute an infringement of privacy as the department had stated, as it represents benefits given to a public official.
In a 34-page decision, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Zoël Dionne ordered the minister of health to disclose the amount of money it gave Cleary.
Government can't act in secret, says judge
Dionne said it wasn't very "convincing" of the government to claim disclosing the amount was a breach of privacy, as it was contradictory to government practice of making salaries of public officials known.
"It is public information," Dionne said in Moncton court on May 25.
"It doesn't come from the pockets of negotiators or ministers or managers. It's from the taxpayers of New Brunswick."
Dionne said the government had an obligation to be transparent and saw no reason why information about a severance package given to a high-ranking public official it fired should remain confidential — unless it was because the government felt it couldn't justify its decision.
The judge added it would be too easy for the government to try to free itself from its obligations by adding confidentiality clauses to severance packages and other agreements.
"If it's allowed to act in secret, that's very dangerous for democracy," said Dionne.
'I think this is hush money'
Mario Levesque, a political science professor at Mount Allison University, said the settlement is a large amount of money.
He thinks that might be one reason the government was trying to keep it a secret.
"I think this is hush hush money," said Levesque.
"And I think it's well-deserved on her part because of the damage to her career and the public good she was doing."
Levesque said he believes the province might have been trying to silence Cleary.
"To try to then hide the settlement through confidentiality clauses or anything like that when it's taxpayer money — and you're not disclosing trade secrets here or anything else like that — is wrong," he said.
Bertrand said a civil servant's employment information is private, according to the rules.
"This case was about the working relationship coming to an end and the contract talked a lot about the employment information of that individual, the work relationship, etc.," said Bertrand.
"None of that should be made public."
But when it comes to an amount of money, there is an exception to the privacy rule if the civil servant is paid through public funds.
"That particular exception requires government to make that public," she said.
"There's no ifs or buts about it — they must do so."
When she was fired, Cleary was studying glyphosate, a controversial herbicide used extensively in New Brunswick forests.
The province repeatedly stated Cleary's termination was not related to her work, or politically motivated.
Cleary was initially put on leave on Nov. 2, 2015 but was informed of her termination on Dec. 7.
When reached on the phone, Cleary declined an interview. She now works as a family doctor in a private clinic.
With files from Nicolas Steinbach, Radio-Canada