Alberta Minister of Finance Doug Horner speaks to the media outside his office at the Alberta Legislature, Thursday Aug. 2, 2012.
Credits: DAVID BLOOM/QMI AGENCY
EDMONTON -- When Premier Alison Redford's cabinet signed an Order in Council on March 16 to make Allaudin Merali the province's controller, they were aware they were putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
At least, the Progressive Conservative cabinet knew of Merali's role in the Ontario eHealth controversy relating to expensed extravagances on the public dime when they chose him over two other candidates for the ironic task of overseeing expense accounting for the entire provincial government.
Finance Minister Doug Horner said his staff was aware of the Ontario situation.
The provincial government has strict rules around expenses, and there's checks and balances in place, he said.
And Merali passed the security check, the financial check, the reputation/reference check, Horner said.
"We were also aware of a number of very positive things he had done ... you balance a person's career in totality, not just over one issue," Horner said.
He might not have passed the Google check.
A quick Internet search reveals that under Merali's leadership as CFO, Capital Health came under fire as far back as 2007 for "hide-and-seek" auditing practices.
His expense reports released last week reveal the rest of the expense iceberg, with reimbursements for fancy dinners, booze and even flowers.
Although he was selected and the Order in Council went out March 16, by that time Merali had already been hired as Alberta Health Services (AHS) chief financial officer and executive vice-president in a chain of executive decisions that will go down in infamy in Alberta's history of bureacratic bungling.
To Merali, it may have looked like a no-brainer; the pay range for the provincial controller was from $149,822 to $208,628 -- less than half what he made when he was CFO at Capital Health, the regional precursor to AHS.
It was at Capital Health where he racked up nearly $350,000 in lavish expenses for fine dining and even liquor between 2005 and 2008.
The irony that Merali had spent more than a decade in the Alberta auditor general's office wasn't lost on deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk on Thursday.
"And he was the one auditing myself on my expenditures," Lukaszuk said.
The problem could be that Merali didn't have the ability to administer the "smell test," Lukaszuk said.
"When you have an individual who doesn't have the intuitive ability of determining what is right and wrong, sometimes you can only learn that through experience, so then the goal is to catch it soon as possible and eliminate it," he said.
The hire was signed off by Premier Alison Redford's entire cabinet, Lukaszuk said.
Horner said it's not common practice to review a prospect's prior employee expense account records in the hiring process.
He said the cabinet was aware of Merali's widely publicized place in the Ontario eHealth scandal. It's a matter of context, Horner said.
Health Minister Fred Horne -- who was in Redford's cabinet at the time of the March decision to make Merali the provincial controller -- said he wasn't privy to the particulars of Merali's rather public role in the Ontario eHealth scandal prior to Merali's return to Alberta three months ago.
"I certainly remember the eHealth issue," he told reporters Thursday.
"In terms of the individuals who were named in the course of that review by the auditor general, I wasn't aware of that, I wasn't aware if AHS board members were or not. Should we have been? Yes, absolutely."
Grilled repeatedly by the press, he kept that position.
"Well, I didn't read the detailed articles on the eHealth issue, which as you know went on for some period of time, it involved other consultants, a group of consultants I believe," he said.
Don't look for Horne to justify his $220 lunch with Merali in March of 2005 -- or even to recall what he ate or drank or what the table chit-chat was.
On Thursday, he was drawing a blank.
"I was working as a health consultant at that time, I believe the year was 2005. Frankly, I don't really recall the occasion or who else may have been there," Horne said.
Horne vowed he will get to the bottom of the current scandal and that expense accounting will become more transparent with numbers posted online quarterly.
"With respect to the hiring practices, I'm as much dumb-founded by this as anyone else," Horne said. "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."