An Overabundance of Caution

We’re worried about each other’s “mental health” a lot more than we used to be. But calling 911 for someone can be a disastrous approach, say victims of our good – or not so good – intentions.

The day before, John had interred his mother’s ashes. But then came what he describes as an “unbelievable, incomprehensible incident” that, in his sensitive state, was “otherworldly” and “traumatizing.”

John (who wishes to keep his name confidential) went to a Victoria recreation centre to try to clear his mind. He bumped into a friend and they talked into the wee hours. When John returned home, the lights in his condominium were on.

“I thought, I must have leaned up against the dimmer switch when I was putting my shoes on,” says John. Then he noticed an out-of-place binder, his laptop positioned differently, his email program opened. “Something was askew,” says John. “It was like I was in some sort of parallel universe.”

Had someone broken in? Visible money hadn’t been taken. “It was just a really creepy feeling,” he says. Having suffered a heart attack last year, and also taking medications for anxiety and help with sleep, the 50 year old felt a “physiological response” to the sense of “violation” and quickly took his medications. “I’m in no immediate danger,” he said to himself.

At 5 a.m., John was awoken by his phone ringing. A police constable introduced himself and said, “We’re just wondering how you’re doing.”

Read the rest at Focus online.

Coup de Police

Secret police chief association records provoke serious questions about lack of police oversight in this province.

As I read through hundreds of pages of records from two BC associations of chiefs of police, I discovered that a letter I had sent to the West Vancouver Police Department Chief Constable had been turned over to all of Canada’s major banks, Canada Border Services, CSIS, and the US Secret Service. This certainly made a mockery of my privacy rights. Yet I realized that much more than privacy was at stake. These previously secret records—a drop from a much vaster pool—painted a worrying picture of unchecked police powers.

A catch up: Last year, I set out to learn more about the BC Association of Chiefs of Police (BCACP) and BC Association of Municipal Chiefs of Police (BCAMCP), because these groups have had tremendous influence on public opinion and provincial justice policies for decades, and yet there’s virtually no publicly available information about them. My quest became a saga (see Focus October 2012, May 2013, July/August 2013).

The chiefs weren’t talkative, and claimed they weren’t subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) covering public bodies (including governing bodies of most professional associations), because their associations were actually “private” groups of “volunteer” participants. I knew that both associations did a lot of lobbying of government officials, so if they were private groups, then I reasoned that at least some of their activities should be tracked in the BC Lobbyist Registry. However, the chiefs also claimed that they weren’t subject to the BC Lobbyists Registration Act because their work in the associations was actually being done in their official capacities as public employees.

Pardon?

BC Civil Liberties Association policy director Micheal Vonn not-so-sardonically summarized the chiefs’ shifting, self-contradicting descriptions of their associations succinctly: “We’re going to use a characterization that may or may not match reality as a shield against, well, whatever we decide we need to be shielded against.”

Were they hiding something? Read the rest at Focus online.

Accountability Crisis

When our governments are going rogue, who or what is going to hold them to account?

 

Lately I’ve been running into so much lack of legal accountability at the most fundamental operating levels of our public agencies, I don’t know where to turn to demand accountability.

After investigating the BC Premier’s Office and its suspicious dearth of documents about major decisions, for example, the BC Information and Privacy Commissioner this year suggested that public employees should have a “duty to document.” But the Commissioner also mentioned that she did not have jurisdiction over the BC Document Disposal Act (DDA). That caught my attention even more. Who, I wondered, ensures that governments and public employees obey the law when they decide what records to permanently delete or shred?

I found out that some training of public employees in rules for document filing and deleting is done, but no one actively monitors compliance. “There are no provisions under the DDA for central monitoring of records disposal,” read a statement from the ministry in charge of information services. I also discovered I’m not the only watchdog worrying. Scanning BC’s Open Information website (where many results of freedom of information requests are posted), I saw that a media outlet recently seemed to be researching a controversial provincial government trade mission to Asia, and then requested copies of emails from people ordering other people to delete those very records. What’s then laid bare in the released documents is that the word “transitory” has become common parlance at government’s highest levels.

Read the rest at Focus online.

Money for Nothing (and the drugs for free)

Doctors’ relationships with drug company representatives have changed, say knowledgeable readers. But for better or worse?

A recently-unemployed friend of mine went into a Victoria walk-in clinic in June complaining about unease he couldn’t explain, and walked out with enough free packets of the antidepressant Cipralex and the stimulant Ritalin to last for weeks. If he liked these drugs, the doctor said, he should come back and get prescriptions for more. “It all happened so fast, in less than five minutes,” my friend said with both fascination and wariness.

I was working at the time on last issue’s article about the drug company sales representatives who fill our doctors’ shelves with free drug samples (“Meet Your Doctor’s Generous Friend,” Focus July/August 2013). My friend showed me his packets, each prominently stamped “Sample.” It seemed very coincidental. However, over the next several months coincidental encounters with Cipralex kept occurring, and I started to wonder how coincidental it really was.

Meanwhile, as damning as my article was of the relationships between drug companies, their sales representatives, and local medical doctors, Focus and I received only a few critical responses. That silence started making me feel like the reality was even worse than the article portrayed. Where were all the doctors declaring their independence from drug company money? Where were all the drug companies and reps declaring, “We’d never engage in those kinds of manipulative, corrupt activities”?

This month’s letter to the editor from a drug sales rep reflects one criticism we did hear: Bill’s and Sam’s stories of working as drug reps in Victoria and Vancouver from 1997-2009 were dated and things today are different. As some folks told it, today many local doctors know drug reps as responsible professionals who deliver samples and, if there’s any interaction, it’s a collaboration in patients’ best interests, period. However, my response was, even if practices in Victoria have changed, most doctors practising today will have been influenced by activities going on here as recently as four years ago, and going on elsewhere still today, and therefore Bill’s and Sam’s stories are still relevant.

This point would soon be even more robustly illustrated to me as I gradually learned about the corrupt international history of Cipralex and its enduring local legacy.

Read the rest at Focus online.

“Curiouser and Curiouser”

Ruling on BC Police Chiefs contradictory and confusing. (Originally published in Focus, July 2013)

In May, Acting Deputy Registrar of Lobbyists Jay Fedorak issued a decision that the BC Association of Chiefs of Police (BCACP) and Municipal Chiefs of Police (BCAMCP) do not need to register as political lobby groups under BC’s Lobbyists Registration Act. Unfortunately, rather than providing clarity, Fedorak’s reasoning has merely fuelled questions swirling around the secretive activities of our police chiefs.

Deputy Registrar of Lobbyists Mary Carlson launched an investigation of the two police chief associations in October after I reported my questions about the associations to her (see Focus, November 2012, and May 2013). The associations were claiming to be “private groups” exempt from BC’s freedom of information laws covering public bodies. However, I asked, if the associations are actually private groups, aren’t they legally required to be registered and tracked as lobby groups, since they do a lot of political lobbying? (Police chief associations in other provinces are registered lobby groups in their provinces.) One way or another, I reasoned, our police chief associations have to be accountable to some laws covering either public or private entities, surely?

Carlson was actively investigating the case for months. However, Carlson suddenly went on leave. Fedorak took over in April and quickly issued a surprising—and surprisingly brief—decision.

Fedorak didn’t grapple with any of the actual substantive issues of the case. Only a single item of evidence was cited in his analysis—a letter of defense from the BCACP President. Fedorak wrote that he agreed with the BCACP President that “when police chiefs are participating in [the BCACP and BCAMCP], they are not ceasing to act as federal and local government employees or police chiefs… [They are working] on behalf of their respective local governments or the RCMP.” Basically, Fedorak concluded that these associations are simply comprised of police chiefs performing their normal public duties as public servants for public bodies, and therefore are not required to be registered as lobby groups.

Okay…except this is a strange conclusion for a number of reasons. Fedorak did not even address the fact that both associations have continued claiming the exact opposite to Focus and to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC); that is, the police chiefs have continued claiming to us that they are “private” groups not subject to public freedom of information laws. Fedorak also did not address the fact that the BCACP as of January became a registered non-profit society, and have long had their own independent budget and a non-government employee. And Fedorak also did not address the fact that the OIPC in September made the determination that the BCACP and BCAMCP “are not a public body.”

And all of this is even more peculiar considering Fedorak’s regular job is OIPC Assistant Commissioner. He was appointed temporarily to the Office of the Registrar of Lobbyist’s by Elizabeth Denham, who technically oversees both independent offices in her role as both Registrar of Lobbyists and Information and Privacy Commissioner. So Fedorak surely knew that the OIPC had previously concluded that the BCACP and BCAMCP are not public bodies, even as he was concluding in his role as the Acting Deputy Registrar of Lobbyists that the associations essentially are public bodies. He also would have known, or should have known, that the BCACP has continued refusing, as a “private” group, to provide copies of its archives through freedom of information processes, even though Fedorak in his ruling seemingly suggests the BCACP has been openly releasing all documents.

BC Civil Liberties Association policy director Micheal Vonn comments, “You can’t be apples in this basket and oranges in this basket. You are either a public, or private, entity. Because all citizens’ rights in relation to you depend on this distinction…Transparency and accountability issues hinge on this.”

Would Vonn call the decision of the Office of the Registrar of Lobbyist’s confusing, then? “Confusing is a fair characterization, but I think you want to go a little farther than that,” she answers. “We have a decision from another body [the OIPC] that comes to a completely contradictory conclusion. Not a different conclusion. Contradictory…This does not square. We need an umpire here to call this one, and we don’t have it at the moment.”

Interestingly, after a copy of a final communique with me about the case was emailed out to various parties, the Lobbyist Registrar’s contracted lawyer on the case, Frank Falzon, chose “reply to all” apparently accidentally. “I’m sure you’ll be hearing more on this issue,” Falzon wrote to Fedorak and another Registrar staff member.

Hmm, so apparently even the Registrar’s own lawyer doesn’t believe the case is as cut and dried as Fedorak’s decision made out?

I hope Mr Falzon is right; we at Focus would like to take all the outstanding questions about these police chief associations to a judicial review. Any lawyer out there who can offer pro-bono help?