Jordan: It’s called the Misfire Report, and it details just how much damage one person can do when they’re determined to expose what they see as corruption. The simple story of what happened here is this: In 2012 a new employee in BC’s Health Ministry thought she saw something wrong with the work of contract employees and researchers. She was convinced that they were misusing personal medical information for their own purposes. So she blew the whistle on them to her boss, who assured her that everything was above board. But, like I said, she was convinced. So she went over his head way over his head, and the auditor general launched an investigation. The investigation resulted in the suspension or termination of seven Health Ministry researchers. And worse than that
News Clip: A former Health Ministry employee who was fired by the province over allegations of conflict of interest and breach of data has been found dead. Harold Roderick MacIsaac was discovered in his home Tuesday by police.
Jordan: Every accusation that was made against those researchers was totally unfounded, and by the time everyone came to that conclusion, one person was dead and seven families were in tatters. So how does that happen? Well, a BC ombudsperson spent two years in 510 pages detailing exactly how badly things can go when a whistle blower gets it wrong and when the people who are supposed to investigate those claims failed to question that basic assumption of wrongdoing. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Kerry Gold is a writer for many publications, including the Walrus, where she dug into this report. Hi Kerry.
Jordan: Why don’t you start just by telling us how many lives were impacted here and what was the scope of your reporting on this?
Kerry: Lives impacted were seven researchers who were fired. But it went well beyond that because their family’s lives were greatly impacted. And also what wasn’t really covered in the story was the fact that there were a great many more people who were contract workers, and they lost their contracts. So a whole bunch of people doing research, say, at the University of BC, or, you know, externally, lost those contracts, and so their lives were impacted, too, and their careers were greatly impacted. The scope of the story, it was pretty from a high level, you know, it was this effect on public health and the fact that all this research was halted, the funding was taken away and there are long term implications of that. So that’s quite serious for the public. And then there was the, if you drill down into it, there was Roderick MacIsaac’s life, which was lost because he was fired and humiliated and traumatized. And then there were all the other people, the other six researchers whose lives were, you know, traumatized greatly. And you know, we’re talking 2012 when this happened and they’re still traumatized. They’re still recovering. And I don’t know if, you know, they ever really will recover because, you know, to have your boss go on in front of television cameras and go before the press and say that not only are you being fired, but you’re also being investigated by the RCMP, which was not true would be devastating. You can imagine how that might impact you. There was a lot of damage done. Never mind the millions of dollars that it costs the taxpayers.
Jordan: Why don’t you tell me how this story starts? You mentioned you mentioned Roderick MacIsaac. Who is he? And what happened to him.
Kerry: Roderick was, you know, just a PhD student. He was a guy who got started a little late in life life because he had been taking care of his mother, who was dying of lung cancer, and she was a smoker. And she died. And he was very close to her. And Roderick, his sister told me, was always an awkward kind of guy. He was, you know, the kind of guy who surrounded himself with books and just love to study. And when his mother died, he started on his PhD, and he specialized in the study of smoking cessation drugs. So obviously it was a personal thing for him to do this kind of work. And so he had a term position at the Ministry of Health, which is like, I guess, a co-op position, studying something but you get a job to get that sort of practical experience. And he was about to end the term three days after he was fired. So they didn’t even let him finish the term. They just fired him.
Jordan: How was Roderick fired and what happened to him?
Kerry: Well, as I described in the story, they interrogated him. And if you listen to the audio tapes, which I was fortunate enough, I don’t think any other reporters ever listened to them. They’re absolutely brutal. It very much is an interrogation. They weren’t listening to him. He was deemed guilty. They weren’t believing him. He was badgered, you know, there’s no other word for word for it. He was badgered and he was threatened, and it goes on for quite a while. I think his interrogation was two hours, four people pressing him, trying to get him to sign documents on the spot without any kind of legal council or, you know, advisement. And he was completely shook up. And it’s really hard to listen to, actually, and he wasn’t the only one. That was one interrogation. The others were interrogated, too.
Jordan: Why were they so sure these people had done something wrong? What, what were they suspecting them of? And and why were the interviews like that?
Kerry: Why the interviews went that way is a mystery. I think it’s just incompetence, really. People who didn’t know what they were doing, they were trained in that kind of handling of a situation. I mean, we all know when it comes to HR, there’s a very strict protocol when you’re investigating an employee, especially if it leads to their dismissal. None of that protocol was followed. Nothing. It was just out the window.
Jordan: What were they accusing him up?
Kerry: They’re accusing him of data breaches. So he was working with his team. You know, as a PhD student, and they accused him of using public information inappropriately for his PhD. He wasn’t doing that at all. But after reading through some emails, they came to that conclusion. They hauled him into these. This meeting, interrogated him. They fired him. And as we know, he killed himself.
Jordan: How many other researchers were accused of this?
Kerry: There were six others. So there were seven in total. And these were all people who had worked at the ministry for years. They worked for government. These were just public servants. You know, people have been there for maybe 25, 30 years. They just thought they were going to get their pensions and pat themselves on the back, job well done. They never saw this coming at all. I interviewed almost all of them. There were a couple who wouldn’t talk, but they were very much the kind of people were very down to earth. They just care greatly about their work. They get up in the morning to go to work. They are not political in the least bit, they just never saw this coming. And they still didn’t really. They never understood why it was happening. They thought it was a mistake that was gonna be fixed. And to this day, I don’t think they still know why it happened. I think there’s still– a large part of the trauma, there’s no explaining it. There’s no reason for it.
Jordan: Well, where did it come from? Where did the original accusations come from and how did they develop into an investigation?
Kerry: So there was this woman who was newly hired, she was only in her job about a year, and her name is Alana James. And she had a legal training, but she wasn’t working as a lawyer for ministry. And her job was to help facilitate these contracts between the government staff and outside workers, and she started thinking that there was some kind of wrong doing going on and that people were getting inappropriate contracts, that there was cronyism involved. And so she started firing off emails and complaining about it and saying that she saw things that were happening and her boss, Robert Hart, he said, No, I don’t see anything, and he started wondering why she wasn’t just doing her job. She kept persisting. She felt she wasn’t being heard. She been angrier, I guess. And she took it all the way to the auditor general John Doyle, and he went and said, Look, this needs to be investigated. So then it became elevated and her concerns became real. Somebody had to do something at that point because the auditor general was flagging this is an issue.
Jordan: What went wrong there in the chain of how these events should have been raised for it to end up with an auditor general ordering an investigation when the person directly in charge says, no, there’s nothing going on here?
Kerry: I think what went wrong is that not once did anybody say, What actual proof do you have of any wrong doing? I think her immediate supervisor didn’t have the power to stop her, obviously, so she went over his head. And then at that point, when it became a big deal, it just kept gaining momentum, instead of somebody saying at some point, Look, we need to sit down and look at the details here and see if there actually is any wrongdoing, and it’s incredible that nobody ever did that. Instead, they appointed an investigation team made up of members of other public servants, to senior roles and with a lead investigator. This lead investigator and someone else took it upon themselves to start sifting through hundreds of emails. And I don’t know about you, but if people read part of my emails, sure, they might come up with all sorts of weird ideas, because you just don’t know what people are talking about in an email thread. There’s no context. So she started taking all this stuff out of context. It just got bigger and bigger. The net grew wider. Other people became implicated. That’s how Roderick got dragged into it. It’s how Ramsay Hamdi got dragged into it, who’s now had three ulcer operations, by the way, he’s been so traumatized. So it just got out of control. And the tragedy is that nobody said this has gotta stop. Nobody in a position of authority ever said that, they just allowed it to escalate.
Jordan: How did it go public?
Kerry: Yeah, well, somebody leaked it to the Vancouver Sun. That much is very clear because the day before the press conference to be held by the newly appointed Minister of Health, the morning it was held, it was already on the front page of the Sun, so somebody– and I could never– I know what reporter got tipped off, but I don’t know who tipped him off. But yeah, it had to be a leak because there’s no other way that the paper would have had a story before the actual press conference.
Jordan: Tell me about that press conference,
Kerry: The Minister Health, she was brand new, and she took the communication, background or whatever that was given to her. And she just read it. She believed in. She was told by her team that, you know, these are the facts. Meanwhile, we’ve learned since then that lawyers were telling them, Do not go out there and say that there’s an RCMP investigation because that’s not true. Now, why they persisted and they said it anyway is another mystery. But she says that she just did what she was told, she had no reason not to believe what she was being told. Victoria’s a small town. Once they said that this group of people have been accused of data breaches and we’re having the RCMP investigate, everybody in Victoria pretty much knew was. There’s no there’s no hiding anything in a city that size, it’s a government town. That’s when the researchers knew that something had gone incredibly wrong for them to suddenly being.
Jordan: And how did everybody else involved come to figure out that none of this was true and none of this was actually happening?
Kerry: Yeah, well, after the press conference and after, you know, I mean, at this point, the public thought, Wow, the government’s really, you know, trying to ferret out some serious corruption. This is brutal. What’s going on over there? So after that all happened, the lead investigator, she kept on with her investigations, you know, accusing more people and investigating or employees. But then it started to become kind of clear that something was amiss and that this was all just a travesty. And remember, the researchers also had hired lawyers, and the ones who were members of the union had union representation. But the lawyers started demanding answers too, and so it became pretty clear, I think after a few months even, that something was wrong and that they’d made a huge mistake. It didn’t go public, though, until Roderick MacIsaac’s sister Linda, wanted an apology. She wanted an explanation. She wanted to know why her brother had died and why he’d been fired. And so she held a press conference of her own one year after he had been fired. And that’s when it really became clear: Oh, my God, this was all wrong. None of it was true.
Jordan: What did the government do when they realized how badly they’d screwed this up?
Kerry: Well, I talked to one guy, and it was cut out of the story, and he was actually quite close to the premiere and other seniors in the government, senior people. And he said that he was trying to tell them to go public and admit that there’s been a mistake. But because there had been lawsuits filed at this point, they were in a bit of a pickle. And there– I guess there was a lot of uncertainty about whether they should, you know, admit, oops our bad, or just let it lie or, you know who knows what the rational was. But for some reason, they weren’t really saying anything. And I would imagine there was a lot of concern about, you know, behind the scenes about what just happened. Especially when somebody’s dead. I mean, you kind of blood on your hands at that point, but yeah, you know, it was because of the sister coming forward. And at that point, everything changed and the government suddenly had to do with a huge mess. They couldn’t hide this one they had to own it.
Jordan: How did they do that?
Kerry: They hired a lawyer. She looked into it. She didn’t have enough time. She wasn’t getting enough time to do a thorough investigation. But she immediately saw that it was a huge problem and that these people had been fired wrongfully dismissed, like there was no case for their firings. And then it went to the ombudsperson. Instead of doing a huge public inquiry, they hired the ombudsperson to do a report which took a considerable amount of time and because there wasn’t a lot of documentation, which was kind of incredible that the government didn’t document everything along the way, he did a lot of interviews, he and his team, and out of that came the Misfire Report, which is a huge, like almost 400 page document. And it was brutal. I mean, it was just scathing. The criticisms levied at the government employees, basically calling them incompetent, inept. It was pretty clear that this was a huge gong show of a disaster.
Jordan: So one of the reasons I was fascinated by the story that you told us because the role of whistle blower is usually celebrated certainly in media circles and when reports like this come out. But this was the opposite of that. What does it highlight about how we how we act on this kind of information or misinformation I guess?
Kerry: Yeah, and the reason I got interested is because of that, because it fascinates me how people operate when they’re in a group and how they get really caught up in group think or whatever you want to call it. It almost becomes to the point where people get fearful of thinking independently and actually wanting to say something antithetical to what the rest of the group is saying, and we see that on social media. We see this sort of tribal momentum that these things can gain. It can get completely out of control, especially when everybody’s attacking a thing or a person. And I think there is an element of that. I think that people were fearful they didn’t want to contradict their supervisors. They wanted to just go along with whatever they were told to go along with. I think that they lost their independent thinking and they became part of a system.
Jordan: Do we know of anything that’s been changed as a result of this so this won’t happen again?
Kerry: Yeah, out of the ombudsperson’s report, there were a whole bunch of recommendations. Some of them included the process and how investigations are conducted. Obviously, you can’t just accuse people of stuff and assume that they’re guilty. You’re supposed to assume they’re probably innocent and then try to find out if they’re guilty. Stuff like that has been changed. Then there was a whole bunch of compensation awarded to the people involved. But yeah, they definitely have changed the system. And I do know that the new government has restored funding to some of the research that was lost. But a lot of the research was slowed down considerably, and we have lost out on years of research
Jordan: on what happened to Roderick MacIsaac posthumously? You mentioned his name was cleared?
Kerry: Yeah, he was unfired. The government sent his sister his last three days pay for $453 or whatever it was, which really angered her. He was given his PhD. I think there’s a foundation set up in his name. So they did things. I think that that might have been part of the recommendations and the judge, Cromwell, he also decided on compensation for everybody and his, Roderick’s family compensation. I think it amounts to about a couple million dollars for everybody. I know in total somebody estimated that the whole thing costs the taxpayer about $9 million. But that doesn’t really compensate people for all the suffering. I mean, some of these people are still not working. They’re not able to work. A couple of them went back to their jobs and Roderick’s family, his sister is still really angry. And so is her husband. They don’t feel that the people who were responsible never really apologized. And they didn’t.
Jordan: And we don’t know to this day why this happened in the first place, why Alana James decided to make these accusations?
Kerry: No. We know that she very likely believed everything. I think that’s pretty clear. I think she was sincere. I think she really believed what she was seeing. And like I say, I think it was just the process that really failed because, yeah, she saw those things. She believed they were true, but it should never have got that far. It should never have widened, instead of narrowing to a point where somebody really looked at what she was saying and determine whether there was any veracity to it. That wasn’t done until it was too late.
Jordan: Thank you for helping us unpack all this, Kerry.
Kerry: You’re welcome.
Jordan: Kerry Gold is a writer for many places, including the Walrus. That was The Big Story. If you’d like more from us, we’ve got it all at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also find other podcasts on the Frequency Podcast Network at the aptly named frequencypodcastnetwork.com. Of course, if you want to talk to us, we are on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. If you just want to listen to every day’s episode, you can subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, doesn’t matter, we’re there. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clark and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers, Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor and I’m Jordan. Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a great long weekend, and we’ll talk Tuesday.
Back to top of page