11/25/2014 05:50 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST

B.C. Auditor General considers probe of health firings

VICTORIA - British Columbia's auditor general is considering launching a second review of the firings of eight health researchers after a former deputy minister accused the Liberal government of attempting to make him a scapegoat.

Victoria labour lawyer Marcia McNeil is already reviewing the 2012 firings, which were followed by the suicide of a student and led to out-of-court-settlements and reinstatements.

Former deputy minister Graham Whitmarsh said Tuesday that while he does not question McNeil's own independence, he questions the independence of the review itself, which is due by Dec. 19.

Whitmarsh said he will participate in the auditor general's independent review, should it occur.

"I listened with great attention to what the premier and (Health) minister were saying and I've been in government for several years at the highest level and I understand the language and it was transparent to me that they were laying the path towards placing the blame on me," Whitmarsh said in an interview.

He said he contacted the office of the auditor general about reviewing the issue.

"It is such a confusing set of information and opinion that I don't see any other way out of it other than a complete and truly independent review," said Whitmarsh.

"You can't have an internal review deal with an issue as complex as this. The auditor general's office is traditionally the independent reviewer of government's activities, and I have spoken to them."

The auditor general's office said it is looking into the potential of its own review and whether it could add anything beyond McNeil's report.

Legal documents released last week from Whitmarsh's lawyer to the provincial government say the unrealistic deadline and scope of the current review reflects the government's intention of using Whitmarsh as a convenient scapegoat to blame.

Whitmarsh, in a written statement, said he met McNeil Monday and decided after the meeting he would not participate in the review.

"Our meeting confirmed my previous concern regarding the unreasonably narrow limits placed on this review and how they will impact her ability to produce a meaningful report," said the Whitmarsh statement. "While Ms. McNeil may be independent, clearly the review is not."

Since the firings, the government has settled three wrongful dismissal lawsuits, reinstated two employees, and Premier Christy Clark and Health Minister Terry Lake have apologized to the family of Roderick MacIsaac, a student who committed suicide.

Four ministry employees were fired and three others were suspended without pay between August and September 2012 after an investigation into the relationship between university researchers seeking grants and employees working on B.C.'s Pharmacare program.

While RCMP were contacted, no charges have been laid. The government has never released evidence of wrongdoing by MacIsaac, nor given a fulsome explanation about what happened.

Opposition New Democrat Leader John Horgan said the government must initiate a review that has the teeth to get to the bottom of the firings. He said the health researchers deserve justice.

"(McNeil) doesn't have the ability to compel the witnesses," said Horgan. "Mr. Whitmarsh's statement makes it fairly clear the government has tried to put the blame for this whole thing on his back. If you want Ms. McNeil to get to the bottom of this, this allow her to compel testimony."

Finance Minister Mike De Jong said Whitmarsh's decision not to participate in McNeil's review was "unfortunate."

Health Minister Terry Lake said McNeil's review is independent of government and he will await its results.

Whitmarsh's political career was deeply connected to former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell.

He was front-and-centre to the former Liberal government's environmental initiatives, including the carbon tax. He was in the Finance Ministry when government revenues plummeted during the economic meltdown of 2009 and helped usher in the government's subsequent introduction of the hated harmonized sales tax.

Whitmarsh was also a top Finance Ministry bureaucrat when the decision was made to pay off the $6 million in legal bills incurred by former government aides Dave Basi and Bobby Virk, after their guilty pleas in the so-called BC Rail scandal.