COLUMN: Gunter – Fleecing the taxpayer and then demanding severance

- August 4th, 2012

No severance for fat-cat bureaucrat!

by Lorne Gunter

There are many outrages in the scandal over Alberta Health Services’ former executive Allaudin Merali and his lavish expense claims.

For instance, during the three-and-a-half years (January 2005 to August 2008) in which Merali billed the now defunct Capital Health region more than $346,000, he filed 146 reimbursement claims. That’s a staggering sum of nearly $2,400 per claim.

During the roughly 1,300 days covered by his expenses spree, Merali claimed an average of nearly $270 a day — seven days a week — on top of his salary of at least $425,000 a year.

He even charged taxpayers for butler service and for the $500 insurance deductible to have the windshield replaced on his Mercedes. Who has the hubris even to imagine taxpayers should foot the bill for new glass in his luxury car?

But as outrageous as all of those examples (and scores of others) are, the greatest outrage is that despite resigning after just three months in his current job as executive vice-president and chief financial officer for Alberta Health Services (AHS), Merali is likely to be paid a year’s severance.

Not only does it appear likely Merali will leave without having to repay tens of thousands of dollars in question-a ble expenses — such as the nearly $2,000 he claimed for unexplained expenses while entertaining unidentified guests at Edmonton’s posh Royal Mayfair country club– there is even possibility he will pocket $425,000 or more in good-bye cash.

Nearly as outrageous has been the reaction of the acting head of AHS, Chris Mazurkewich. In announcing Merali’s resignation Wednesday, Mazurkewich gave no indication he saw anything untoward with Meral i’s expense records.

According to Mazurkewich, Merali’s decision to depart AHS was “mutual.” Merali wasn’t being fired. He wasn’t leaving because of any impropriety.

Rather he and the AHS had agreed that the attention this story would surely generate would “detract from his ability to act as AHS’ chief financial officer” and cast doubt on the superboard’s commitment “to uphold the highest standards of accountability.”

So better to pay him to leave and hope the fuss goes away quickly.

Was there anything smelly in the exorbitant amount Merali had claimed from taxpayers? Mazurkewich didn’t seem to think so. It was “an integral and necessary part of (Merali’s) duties” to develop relationships with external partners, businesses and service providers and act as an official representative in numerous meetings and functions. This included hosting events as well as representing the organization locally, nationally and internationally.

Believe it or not, Mazurkewich even insisted Merali’s expenses “reflected the standards in public-sector organizations.”

Really? Are we to infer from Mazurkewich’s assertion that all the other execs over at AHS have similar levels of expenses? Is it consistent with “the standards in public sector organizations” for all senior employees to have taxpayers repair their windshields?

Health Minister Fred Horne had an equally mealy-mouthed response.

The minister explained that Merali’s expenses were allowable under the rules in place at the time.

If that’s true, then the Tory government is responsible, because they would have had to approve those rules. Horne also promised to get to the bottom of the scandal himself. How? With the same vigour that his Tory colleagues got to the bottom of last year’s doctor-bullying scandal or hushed up the chief electoral officer’s investigations of possible unethical donations from

public agencies to Tory campaigns? If Horne is serious, he must turn over the financial investigation to the Auditor General and ask the Attorney General to ensure there are no fraudulent expense claims.

In the meantime, Horne must step in and ensure Merali is paid no severance. If Merali believes he is owed, let him sue.

Categories: Contributor Columns

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