Premier uses erroneous example to defend public employees taking vendor-paid trips
Confusion reigns over conflict of interest policy
Saskatchewan's Premier said in question period Thursday that sometimes it's OK for public employees to go on vendor-sponsored trips because it brings public benefit and saves taxpayers money, but the example he used turned out to be based on faulty information.
The NDP was questioning Moe Thursday based on a CBC iTeam story about how a private company flew eHealth employees to North Carolina for the PGA Championship and a series of business meetings. Some of those employees were fired for violating eHealth's conflict of interest rules which forbid them from taking free flights, conference registrations or all-expenses-paid trips.
The NDP asked how widespread this practise is in the Saskatchewan government. Moe responded that sometimes it's fine for bureaucrats to take privately funded trips.
"There are examples where vendor-sponsored travel actually does happen in the ministries Mr. Speaker," said Moe in the legislature.
As an example, he said the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency was planning to purchase a high tech piece of equipment, a linear accelerator, for cancer treatment.
"Prior to the purchase of this machine you have to actually travel to see the equipment to look at it and to learn to operate it Mr. Speaker," Moe said.
"If this was taxpayer funded travel it would be more expensive Mr. Speaker," Moe said.
Oops: Premier's office
The Premier's office backpedalled later Thursday afternoon.
"The example used by the Premier in question period was provided by the Saskatchewan Health Authority this morning," said an email from the Premier's press secretary. "Upon further review by the Saskatchewan Health Authority, it was determined that this was not an example of vendor sponsored travel."
"In the specific example regarding the purchase and training for a linear accelerator, the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency paid for travel and accommodations while tuition credits for training radiation therapists was built into the contract. At this time, the Saskatchewan Health Authority has not provided other examples of vendor sponsored travel."
CBC asked the Premier's office if Moe still stands by the broader point he was trying to make, that sometimes its OK for bureaucrats to take trips paid for by companies doing business with the government. His office said that's an open question.
Conflicting conflict rules
The current rules governing this issue for public employees in Saskatchewan are not clear about what is and is not acceptable.
eHealth provides its employees with a list of gifts that should be declined. It includes flights, conference registrations and all-expenses paid trips.
The Saskatoon Health Region policy, which is still in place even though the organization has been subsumed into the new Saskatchewan Health Authority, says vendor sponsored trips are fine.
The policy says staff may accept "tokens exchanged as part of the protocol/the normal exchange of hospitality between persons doing business together (including lunches and trips, meals, travel, accommodations paid by the vendor).
Government acknowledges uncertainty
In the legislature, the Premier pointed to another conflict of interest standard.
"I think it's important for us to note that the Public Service Commission does have a conflict of interest policy that all government employees are required to follow, Mr. Speaker, it says that employees are not allowed to accept any gift of service like a trip that could be viewed as a payment for services rendered through his or her employment in the public service," Moe said.
The policy also says bureaucrats can accept gifts that are "the normal exchange of hospitality between persons doing business together."
But this policy that governs public sector employees doesn't say whether accepting trips is acceptable — like in the Saskatoon Health Region policy — or unacceptable — like eHealth's policy.
In an email, the Premier's office acknowledged there is uncertainty right now.
It said the creation of a single health authority provides the government an opportunity to think this issue through.
"This review will determine a new policy on vendor sponsored travel and will clarify whether there are or are not situations where vendor sponsored travel would be appropriate."
The Premier's office says the minister of health has asked the Saskatchewan Health Authority to "expedite" the process of writing this new policy.