B.C. gov't workers scam public; Special unit

By Sam Cooper, The Province [Vancouver, B.C], 13 Jan 2014. With files from freelance journalist Stanley Tromp


In sophisticated frauds, a number of provincial government workers have teamed up with dodgy businesses and contractors to steal from you, the taxpayer.

The schemes - including an apparent rogue network of "public servants" bilking the health care system, and frauds aimed at autism, adoption, and childcare funding pools - are revealed in documents obtained by The Province through freedom of information.

The documents tell the story of 10 scam probes completed between July and October 2013, and they come from B.C.'s special investigative unit of the comptroller general, a team tasked with protecting against insider theft of taxpayer funds.

The documents are reassuring in that they indicate rigorous work from the special unit, but also disconcerting because they show "many people, responsible for our tax money, are acting inappropriately," according to Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. The Province shared these confidential documents with Bateman for his analysis.

The government has so heavily obscured these files, Bateman said, that it is impossible to know how much money was stolen in these cases, how many public servants are guilty, and what consequences they face.

In The Province's estimation, more than 20 public servants are implicated in these schemes, and not a single identity is revealed.

"I'm astonished how many of these staffers seem to still be working for the government," Bateman said. "And there is no reason why government should not release the amount of money involved in each of these cases."

One file reveals that in 2009 whistleblowers called a health care antifraud line to report two Lower Mainland medical supply retailers were involved in a false billing scheme. In 2011, the special investigative unit was informed of a probe involving the two businesses and four public servants from four provincial ministries.

An undercover investigation into the first scheme revealed that two more government workers, including one from the Health Ministry, were involved in a separate billing scheme. In both cases, government workers were reimbursed for goods or services they never received, according to documents.

While details on the mechanics of the scams are redacted, a likely possibility would involve workers obtaining false medical expense invoices, stealing taxpayer money through false claims, and then returning to the unscrupulous businesses to kick back a cut of the profit.

Some, but not all, of the money stolen was returned to the government. But documents don't suggest any actions taken against the six guilty workers, who are not identified as "former" workers, as is done in some other cases.

"It is scary that the people involved are in different ministries," Bateman said. "Is there some sort of network going on?" A separate investigation shows that a former provincial employee was fraudulently reimbursed for outof-country medical expenses, and later pulled the same scheme after becoming a federal employee.

Money was recovered but it "was determined that further punitive actions would not be practical or cost effective," according to documents.

In another case, the government took a "substantial loss" on Vancouver Island. In that case, documents suggest a government clerk helped a childcare provider pad enrolment books with non-existent children, which allowed the licensed contractor to steal from Vancouver Island Health Authority's "child care operating fund."

One disturbing case shows an autism therapy provider falsely billed for services not provided, and more than one family may have been victimized. Post-adoption services was also scammed in one case.

In an apparently far-reaching scheme, a number workers in the "tree improvement branch" were investigated internally by the Ministry of Forestry for "financial improprieties." The probe broadened into concerns of conflict of interest and use of government purchasing cards.

Documents say an independent investigation was requested for financial transactions in the ministry, but because of redactions it is impossible to know how deep, or high this apparent scandal reached.

In documents, the special investigative unit says it will conclude by listing issues for every employee implicated. The following two pages are completely blacked out, suggesting many employees did some things wrong, or some employees did many things wrong.

"The ministry took the necessary and appropriate disciplinary action against those staff that were identified as having conducted themselves in a manner contrary to the standards of conduct and expectations entrusted upon them," documents say.

In an interview, government spokesman Jamie Edwardson said that for "personnel" reasons he could not say whether the unidentified workers involved in some of these apparently criminal schemes are still with the government.

Bateman said that's not good enough.

"Government should take a page from Game of Thrones," Bateman said. "If you are caught, put these people's heads on a pike for everyone in the bureaucracy to see - fire them, make the reason why public, and let it act as a warning to others."



There should be no secrecy with frauds

Editorial, The Province, [Vancouver, B.C], 16 Jan 2014


Our investigative story Monday revealing multiple examples of fraud by provincial government employees provided at least one relief - it was a relief to learn that special investigators from the office of B.C.'s comptroller general are keeping a steady eye on our tax dollars.

What was disconcerting, though, about the story by Province reporter Sam Cooper and freelance journalist Stanley Tromp was the level of secrecy the government applied in releasing documents through freedom of information.

While the documents revealed examples of employee fraud involving money that should have gone for health care and autism, adoption and childcare programs, to list a few, details were blackened out. We don't know how much was stolen, how much was retrieved, who was involved, including the seniority of their jobs within government or whether they were fired.

The government justifies this almost total secrecy because they involve personnel matters, saying, essentially, that we must trust them to have done the right thing in dealing with these notorious cases.

In a democracy, this is not good enough. Government, except in rare cases, should not ask citizens to trust them. They should be transparent when it comes to our money.

Revealing which officials stole how much and what was done about it should not be a secret. Making a public example of fraudsters also would be a good warning to others.