The man who ordered the 2014 audit into the expenses of former Fraser Health CEO Dr. Nigel Murray and other senior administrators says the results weren’t scandalous and merely turned up the need for tighter rules.
Wynne Powell, who was tasked with turning around the beleaguered organization when he was appointed acting chair of Fraser Health, says that while the audit turned up some receipts that didn’t abide by policy, nothing suggested the widespread misuse of expense accounts.
The audit was made public this week after a freedom of information request by The News. It looked at 12 senior administrators’ expenses over five years. A subsequent report said that while most spending was accounted for, more than 400 detailed receipts were missing for some $22,000 worth of meals. That made it impossible for auditors to determine who was eating or whether alcohol was being claimed as an expense. The audit also revealed that executives used a company credit card to buy $1,600 worth of electronics, including Bose headphones and an iTunes card. Most of the purchases were made by then-CEO Nigel Murray, the audit said. Murray is now at the centre of an expenses scandal in New Zealand, where he returned after being fired by Powell in May of 2014.
Powell, the former CEO of London Drugs, said said he ordered the audit as part of a regular process to ensure all regulations were being followed. He said the audit was thorough and “extremely well done.”
Powell, who has a background in accounting, said the normal mindset is “trust but verify.”
Despite the scandal in New Zealand, Powell said his views on the audit’s outcome hasn’t changed.
Based on the figures included in the report, each meal claimed would have been for a little more than $50. Powell said that while protecting the public purse was important, “In the grand scheme of things, the overall expenses didn’t seem excessive.”
Powell said interviews with job applicants are frequently conducted over dinner. While rules were “tightened” to ensure administrators complied with Fraser Health’s expense policy, no major alarm bells went off. Those expense claims for which Murray did not provide receipts were approved at the time by the chair of the health board.
Powell also recalled the circumstances of Murray’s 2014 dismissal. He said the board “had identified [Murray’s] best role in the health system,” and that it wasn’t heading Fraser Health. In a May meeting, Murray was instead told he was being removed as CEO of Fraser Health, but could take a job as “Provincial Senior Executive lead” in Victoria.
“He would have had the same challenges he had at Fraser,” Powell said.
Powell said the meeting wasn’t confrontational, and that the suggested position of “Provincial Senior Executive lead” was not “a made-up opportunity.” But he said it became “a mute point” when Murray turned it down, citing a sick father in New Zealand. With Murray out of the picture, Powell said the province had to find another qualified high-level candidate for the position.
In New Zealand, Murray is repaying around $70,000 worth of improper expenses incurred during his three years as head of the Waikato District Health Board. Bob Simcock, the health board chair who approved those expenses, was forced to resign, and has blasted B.C. officials for not alerting him to Murray’s firing in 2014. An inquiry also found that Murray spent half of his last year travelling, and billed his employer for more than $200,000 in travel expenses.
Fraser Health has not asked Murray to repay any money because, a spokesperson said, all his expenses had been approved by the health authority’s chair at the time.