08/02/2012 01:47 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Minister promises to review Alberta health boss expenses

EDMONTON - Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne has promised to get to the bottom of how a senior official was allowed to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses for everything from fancy meals to car repairs.

Horne admits he didn't know about Allaudin Merali's previous troubles over similar spending when he was a health consultant in Ontario. Nor does he know if the board who hired Merali as chief financial officer for Alberta Health Services knew anything either.

"I'm as much dumbfounded by this as anyone else," Horne said Thursday, the day after Merali's sudden resignation just weeks after he was hired by Alberta Health Services and three years after he left Ontario.

Documents show that between 2005 and 2009 — when Merali first worked in Alberta for a health authority that looked after Edmonton and region — he filed expenses totalling $346,000. They included a bill to taxpayers for almost $1,750 to fix his Mercedes when his annual salary was $487,000.

An expert in electronic health data systems, Merali moved to Ontario to consult for that province. Documents later revealed he was among a number of health consultants charging thousands of dollars to taxpayers for meals and perks — in his case $76,000 a month.

Sheila Weatherill ran the Capital Health regional authority that approved Merali's expenses. She resigned Wednesday night from her current position on the board of Alberta Health Services, the superboard that was formed when the government merged the regional health authorities. It oversees the day-to-day operation of health care and brought Merali back to the province.

That board has some explaining to do, Horne said.

"I don't want there to be any doubt whatsoever that I am outraged and the government is outraged by what has been revealed here ... I want to know what the board knew and what oversight the board provided with respect to this particular hiring and I intend to find out."

Horne has a long history as a health-care administrator, consultant and bureaucrat. But he said he was unaware of Merali's involvement in Ontario's expense account scandal and wasn't involved in the hiring decision.

"I wasn't aware of past history in Ontario," he said.

"I do not oversee the hiring of senior executives of Alberta Health Services. Perhaps there should be a role that involves greater scrutiny in some of these positions.

"Should we have known? Yes."

Horne said Merali's expenses were allowable under rules in place at the time. Those rules have since been changed, he said.

Horne couldn't say if Merali can be compelled to repay the expenses he claimed or if he is due any severance under his most recent contract.

Nor did he promise an investigation into expense claims of other health officials from that time, or give any timelines on when his own investigation will be completed.

"The auditor general's been asked to look at the current spending policies and practices."

Horne promised all expense claims will soon be posted online and that the results of his investigation will be made public.

Not good enough, said opposition members of the legislature.

"Out of anyone, (Horne) should have known about the e-health scandal in Ontario," said Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw. "He should know the background of the chief financial officer of Alberta Health Services.

"Apparently, the minister just appoints the Alberta Health superboard and then he just walks away ... The health minister has to be accountable."

Saskiw said expense claims are part of a long tradition of Tory privilege that includes fat consulting contracts for friends to health executives receiving bonuses despite missing most of their performance targets.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said there's no way Alberta should have rehired Merali.

"Why didn't any lights go on for people?" he asked. "Obviously, there are not adequate checks."

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said the issue underlines the need for a full public inquiry into Alberta health care.

"We need a forensic auditing of the books of all expenses of all senior executive vice-presidents and the CEO of Capital Health," he said, referring to Weatherill's former role.

"How many Albertans were denied care as a result of this waste?"

Horne acknowledged that many Albertans may be asking themselves the same question.

"This raises serious questions in the mind of the public," he said. "This is fundamental to public confidence in our health-care system."