New Brunswick

Saint John region 'in good hands' with medical officer, says infectious diseases specialist

An infectious diseases specialist at the Saint John Regional Hospital says he hopes the employment history of the region's medical officer of health doesn't undermine the public's confidence in her ability to do her job.

Dr. Kim Barker is 'fantastic' at her job, despite employment history, says Dr. Duncan Webster

Dr. Kim Barker resigned as Algoma's Chief Medical Officer of Health in 2015 after it was revealed she hired a convicted fraudster to oversee the health unit's finances. (Travis Burke/CBC)

An infectious diseases specialist at the Saint John Regional Hospital says he hopes the employment history of the region's medical officer of health doesn't undermine the public's confidence in her ability to do her job.

Dr. Duncan Webster says he worked closely with Dr. Kim Barker during the measles outbreak last April, shortly after she started in the position, and she was "fantastic."

And with the uncertainty of what coronavirus may mean for the Saint John health region, which stretches from Sussex to St. Stephen, he's "grateful" she's the one managing public health.

In addition, he said, Barker is a hard worker, an "amazing advocate" for marginalized population and an inspiration for doing it all while legally blind — a reaction to antimalarial medication she took when she worked in Tanzania in 2003.

"You would have no idea that she even had this additional obstacle. She just makes it seamless. … And to me, that shows a tremendous amount of resiliency."

Webster was responding to media reports about a recently released audit of Barker's stint as the head of Algoma Public Health in northeastern Ontario.

Barker hired a man she initially knew as Shaun Rothberg as the interim chief financial officer of the unit based in Sault Ste. Marie in November 2013. Rothberg turned out to be Shaun Rootenberg, who had been convicted of fraud and sentenced in 2005 to 3½ years in a federal prison.

According to the KPMG report, Barker was aware of Rootenberg's real name about seven weeks before he was hired and told the auditor she'd hoped to start a romantic relationship with him.

She resigned in 2015 after Rootenberg's criminal history was exposed and went on to work in Nunavut, where she was abruptly let go in 2018. She alleged she was fired without cause.

'Incredible' clinical judgment

"If we're looking for somebody who is going to be flawless, there is no such person," Webster said.

But he has no concerns about Barker's clinical judgment, he said.

"Based on what I've heard leading up to her arrival, and everything I've seen since she's arrived, we're in good hands."

Webster said he first heard Barker was coming to Saint John from one of his fellowship mentors, who is a member of the Order of Canada for her international work to end tuberculosis. His mentor had "a lot of great things to say" about Barker, so he was looking forward to meeting her, he said.

Dr. Duncan Webster, an infectious diseases consultant and medical microbiologist at the Saint John Regional Hospital, said Barker has 'great training' and comes with 'accolades from some world renowned physicians.' (Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation)

It was during their first meeting, at a joint public health-infectious diseases meeting about hepatitis C, that Barker got word from the provincial lab about the first confirmed case of measles in Saint John, said Webster.

Watching her deal with it was "incredible," he said. "I mean, she was on her game. She was so on top of things. She worked like a dog. And I'll tell you, the taxpayers got their money's worth and more."

Although measles "rages on" in some outbreaks, it lasted about two months in Saint John, with a total of 12 cases confirmed.

Webster credits Barker for dealing with it swiftly and standing her ground if questioned about the measures put in place, such as pop-up clinics for immunization and testing. 

"That was no small task."

Dispelling coronavirus myths

Since then, she has remained "nose to the grindstone," working around the clock on a wide range of issues, including poverty and harm reduction, he said. Barker plans to hold a public meeting about coronavirus next week.

The goal of the event is to help dispel some "misinformation and myths" and answer any questions, according to a poster.

The event is being hosted by the "It Takes a Village" committee of the parent school support committees of the four Saint John area high schools, with the Anglophone South School District.  

The meeting is scheduled for Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Saint John High School's Dennis Knibb auditorium.

$595K romantic scam

Rootenberg, of Thornhill, Ont., is scheduled to face a sentencing hearing in Toronto that day after being found guilty last July of defrauding a divorced mother of two he met on an online dating site out of $595,000.

The woman had given Rootenberg the money in 2013 to invest on her behalf. Instead, he bought himself a BMW and paid off gambling debts, the court heard.

The case against Rootenberg, who is in his 50s, also initially involved Barker as an alleged victim of a romance scam, but the Crown did not proceed on those charges.

Shaun Rootenberg, also known as Shaun Rothberg, pictured here in a 2017 handout image from Toronto police, was hired as Algoma Public Health's interim chief financial officer in November 2013. (Toronto Police Service)

Barker declined to confirm to CBC News that she met Rootenberg on eHarmony.

She said seven years is a long time ago and she has moved on with her life.

"I'm really focused on serving the public and public health."

Rootenberg served as the interim chief financial officer for Algoma Public Health for nearly six months, being paid $3,950 a week, plus HST.

According to the KPMG report, Barker told auditors she had contacted Sault St. Marie police in either July or August 2013, before he was hired, and requested a criminal record check.

"It is not clear why Dr. Barker would have taken this step at this time as there was no indication that Mr. Rothberg would be hired," the report states. The request for proposals for a consultant to help in the search for a new chief financial officer and for someone to fill the job in the interim was only issued on or about Oct. 22, 2013.

Barker told the auditors she requested the Canadian Police Information Centre search under the name Shaun Rothberg because she didn't know his real name was Rootenberg at the time, according to the report.

Asked about conflict-of-interest rules

A KPMG review of Barker's emails found she had been exchanging "increasingly personal" emails with Rootenberg since July 2013 and was aware of his real name by Oct. 8.

In November, Barker exchanged a series of emails with the director of human resources and corporate services for Algoma Public Health about conflict of interest rules.

The human resources director told the auditors Barker had inquired as to whether a partner or spouse could act as interim CFO and she advised "the best thing is to get a legal opinion and need to be very careful of the optics."

Barker did not disclose the "nature of her relationship" with Rootenberg to the board prior to his appointment. 

"Barker went on to characterize her failure to do so as a 'complete lack of judgment,'" the report said.

Doctor sees 'flaws' in report

Barker told auditors that she was introduced to Rootenberg by the consultant and that she had met the consultant at a dinner party in Toronto.

"When KPMG provided Dr. Barker with copies of certain emails between herself and Mr. [Rootenberg] relating to [the consultant], Dr. Barker continued to assert that she was introduced to Mr. [Rootenberg] by [the consultant].

"Dr. Barker did not provide a reasonable explanation for the inconsistency between her recollection and the email messages that indicate that Mr. [Rootenberg] introduced Dr. Barker to [the consultant]," the report states.

Barker told CBC News the KPMG report is "full of flaws and inaccuracies," but she did not provide any examples.

With files from The Canadian Press

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