EDMONTON - An Alberta health executive who quit after it was revealed he had billed taxpayers for almost $370,000 for lavish meals, car repairs and a butler says — if anything — he didn't charge enough.
Allaudin Merali, in a statement released to the media Friday, said his expenses were within the rules at the time and he could have charged more for business functions held at his home.
"I generally under-reported the true cost of these functions by not expensing the general use of my home or cooking and any additional food provided by my wife," Merali said in the letter.
The butler bills have been taken out of context because the butlers were part of catering staff routinely hired to work at the functions, he added.
"This is common practice at the senior executive level," he wrote.
"The imputation that I simply lived a high life at the taxpayers' expense is an invention of sheer malice."
On Thursday, Alberta Health Services, or AHS, reported the audited findings for Merali's spending during his tenure from 2005-2008 as chief financial officer for the now-defunct Capital Health Authority in Edmonton.
Merali — after meeting with AHS officials — agreed to quit his post last Aug. 1 just hours ahead of a television report that aired the details of his spending and pegged it at $346,000.
On Thursday, AHS reported that a subsequent outside audit revealed the final number was another $22,000 higher.
AHS said the auditors also found that all but $5,613 of Merali's spending was either in a grey area or was allowed under loose or non-existent rules and reporting standards that governed executive spending at Capital Health.
The AHS also reported that a check of four other executives who held positions with the former Calgary Health Region revealed that $5,100 out of their spending total of $234,948 should not have been charged to taxpayers.
AHS chairman Stephen Lockwood said that "non-compliant" amount was so small he chalked it up to a clerical error.
Merali, in his letter, wondered why he wasn't being given the same benefit of the doubt.
"I cannot accept that my past expenses are held up to a different standard and reported in the media without context and without regard to simple fairness, so as to cast implicit doubts on my integrity," he wrote.
In the days that followed Merali's departure, numerous media agencies sought him out for comment but were rebuffed.
Merali wrote that his expense payments were artificially high because he was often left with the cheque when he had to fill in for the region's CEO, Sheila Weatherill, or when he had to attend or hold a function at the provincial government's request.
"In a different organization, my travel and hosting expenses might have been shared among several executives, and would then have been a non-issue."
Merali's receipts included $2,303 to install a Bluetooth phone in his Mercedes Benz and $525 to fix a car window.
He defended those bills as necessities for an executive in a $3-billion organization who needed to be available at all times.
He also billed taxpayers $594 for an airline ticket for his wife. He said that was an innocent mistake and that he had otherwise scrupulously reimbursed the region for any of her expenses.
Records show Merali had a history of controversial spending.
He lost his job at Capital Health in 2008 when it and all other health regions and boards were merged into the current superboard.
He then began working in Ontario, advising the province on how to implement an electronic health records system.
By 2009, however, his contract was not renewed. Documents released to the public showed he had been billing taxpayers about $76,000 a month for flights, pricey meals and hotel accommodations.
In the spring of 2011 he was back in Alberta and was hired as chief financial officer for AHS.
Board members have said they were aware at that point of Merali's Ontario spending controversy but hired him anyway because of his skills. They said he also promised to adhere to new strict spending rules.
Shortly after Merali's departure, Weatherill resigned from the board of AHS. She had signed off on Merali's expenses.
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