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Secrecy, not urgency, cited on VIHA hire with ties to premier

Jan 27 2012

The Vancouver Island Health Authority cited government secrecy - not urgency as it earlier claimed - as a reason for not following its hiring rules and awarding a contract without competition to the husband of one of Premier Christy Clark's top advisers, internal documents show.

The facts laid out in documents obtained by the Times Colonist appear to contradict VIHA's public position that it awarded the $161,800 contract because of an urgency to fill the job.

Documents also call into question VIHA CEO Howard Waldner's published statements on Nov. 22 that he realized the poor optics of the deal only "in hindsight," when he was actually warned by staff at least a week prior.

Waldner's director of communications sounded the alarm on Nov. 15 that the agency could face uncomfortable questions about the new hire's ties to the premier and how VIHA filled the position.

VIHA wanted to hire a vice-president of communications on a 12-month contract. Its policy is to advertise jobs paying more than $75,000. Instead, it gave the job without competition to Stewart Muir, a former Vancouver Sun deputy managing editor and the husband of Clark's thendeputy minister, Athana Mentzelopoulos.

Waldner signed off on the deal in a document titled Waiver of Competitive Process. That document, obtained under freedom of information legislation, cited "government confidentiality" as the reason to bypass VIHA's Fair Business Practice policy.

Muir would fill in for Neil Sweeney, who left VIHA in March 2011 on a one-year year leave of absence to run the B.C. government's communications bureau.

"Neil's secondment is well known locally therefore suggestion in the public of his continued work with government (which would result from a competitive process) may breach government confidentiality," the waiver form reads.

No one from VIHA was able to explain Thursday what specific confidentiality would have been breached.

Waldner made no mention of "government confidentiality" in a Nov. 21 interview, after the hiring became public.

"The document was completed by a member of our team and recommended to me by someone else and I signed the document," Waldner said Thursday.

"I didn't actually write the document and these are the two reasons why I did it. I stand by my comments and I don't think it's constructive or helpful to discuss it any further."

Muir signed his contract on Nov. 8. Within days, red flags were raised.

"Muir's appointment may raise questions from media and opposition as communications positions are generally high profile and because of perceived political connections," VIHA communications director Suzanne Germain wrote in a "positioning note" for Waldner dated Nov. 15.

She also warned that VIHA broke its hiring policy.

Asked Thursday if she warned Waldner earlier than the Nov. 15 note, Germain said: "It would have been finalized on that date. It takes a while to write these things."

Waldner would have been given the note that day, she confirmed.

"I do not actually remember [seeing the note] because it was some months ago," Waldner said Thursday. "Quite honestly, life has moved on for us."

VIHA faced criticism once Muir's hiring became public in a Nov. 22 Times Colonist story.

The issue became a political embarrassment for the premier and Health Minister Mike de Jong, who faced questions at the legislature about alleged favouritism.

Muir's contract was rescinded later that day and Waldner apologized.

The case prompted VIHA to change its hiring policy. Waldner must now receive board approval on hiring exemptions.

Muir said Thursday he told VIHA executives his wife worked in the premier's office at the start of the interview process.

Waldner said the job has now been posted. ceharnett@timescolonist.com rshaw@timescolonist.com

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