ALBERTA

Alison Redford Happy Sheila Weatherill Repaid Money; Says No Inquiry Needed

04/22/2013 05:11 EDT | Updated 06/22/2013 05:12 EDT
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Alison Redford, premier of Canada's Alberta province, speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. Redford told reporters in Washington yesterday she doesn't have 'any reason' to believe the U.S. government's review of the Keystone XL pipeline will lead to an 'adverse' outcome. Photographer: Stephen Yang/Bloomberg via Getty Images
EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford says a former health executive did the right thing by repaying $7,800 to the province for a six-year-old expense blunder.

But Redford resisted opposition calls Monday for a broader investigation into Sheila Weatherill's actions and those of her colleagues prior to 2008, when Weatherill was CEO of Edmonton's old Capital Health region.

"Health expenses need to be reviewed in detail and paid back," Opposition Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith told the house during question period.

"The only thing missing is a full forensic audit of all the health executive expenses going back to the (former executive Allaudin) Merali era. When can we expect that?"

Redford told the house that the matter is before Alberta Health Services — the day-to-day delivery arm of the health system — and that AHS has decided it's better to focus on getting expenses right in the future than on investigating the past.

"We think that's appropriate," Redford said.

Redford reminded the house that her government tightened expense spending rules last fall to prevent a repeat of misspending. The government also asked a retired judge last week to deliver a legal opinion on whether authorities have any legal means to recover other misspent funds from the past should they arise.

"We're going to ensure that wherever possible, if circumstances do arise, that we have the best possible advice as to what steps to take in order to recover taxpayer dollars," said Redford.

Weatherill paid back $7,800 to the government last week to cover the costs, plus interest, of a trip one of her vice-presidents, Michele Lahey, took to the prestigious private Mayo Clinic in 2007 for a cancer check-up.

Lahey now works at a private hospital in London, England. She said in an email it was Weatherill's idea to go to the Mayo to get checked out. Weatherill, in a letter accompanying the cheque, disagreed with Lahey but didn't elaborate.

The Capital Health Region, and all other regions, were folded into the current AHS superboard in 2008. Weatherill then became an AHS board member.

She stepped down from the board last summer after it was found that in her old role as Capital Health CEO, she also signed off on almost $370,000 in lavish questionable expenses for Merali, then Capital Health's financial officer.

Merali resigned as financial officer for AHS last summer, shortly before Weatherill's resignation, when the expense spending became public.

Doucments show Merali dinged taxpayers for expensive dinners, to fix his Mercedes Benz and to hire a butler.

Lahey's documents reveal that from 2005-06 she expensed thousands of dollars for hosting at high-end restaurants and retreats, for charitable donations, gift baskets, fine wines and cheeses, and a $100 candlestick.

Health Minister Fred Horne told reporters last week that despite the Merali-Lahey cases, he has no reason to believe further investigation of Weatherill is warranted.

He said anyone who wants Weatherill's expense records can ask for them under freedom of information rules. The opposition parties are already doing that, but say public confidence in the system needs to be restored.

AHS is separate from the health ministry but ultimately answers to Horne.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said Redford's refusal to investigate further is a page right out of the Progressive Conservative playbook.

"They do that over and over again," said Mason.

"Whenever you catch somebody with their hand in the cookie jar or you find some huge screw-up in the government that reeks of incompetence if not corruption, (the Tories) always say, 'We fixed it, that's in the past, don't look there. Look (over) here to this future, wonderful shiny world that we're planning for you.

"I don't think Albertans buy it."

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said a forensic audit is the only way to go.

"How many other expense claims authorized by Sheila Weatherill amounted to a flagrant abuse of taxpayer dollars?" asked Sherman.

"What expense claims did she herself submit? Were any of these a flagrant abuse of taxpayer dollars? Who approved these expenses if that is the case? Are any charges warranted?

"The forensic audit of Capital Health needs to start right at the top, with (Weatherill).”

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