A former Chief Information Officer with the Saskatchewan Crown corporation eHealth acknowledges that last year he received an all-expenses-paid trip to Charlotte, North Carolina where he and two other eHealth employees attended the PGA Championship.
Wilbour Craddock told CBC’s iTeam the flights, accommodations, meals and tickets to the August 2017 tournament were all paid for by Lexmark, a large printing firm that does business with the government of Saskatchewan.
The employees Craddock travelled with ended up getting fired earlier this year for violating the conflict of interest policy at eHealth, which runs Saskatchewan’s electronic health record system.
Examples of gifts that should be declined: … Flights and/or registration to events. All-expense-paid trips.– eHealth Conflict of Interest policy
In a September statement, eHealth said the unnamed employees were dismissed because they « attended sporting events in the United States paid for by private companies that provide goods and services to eHealth. » eHealth also said the employees didn’t break the law and no funds were misappropriated.
Craddock wasn’t fired. He had already left eHealth for a job at Sask Polytechnic. He left just weeks before the hammer came down on the other employees.
Craddock said the new job opportunity was attractive because, « I no longer felt comfortable in the political dynamic that was the consolidation of the health system and some of the fighting that was going on between organizations. »
PGA trip not just about golf
According to Craddock’s Twitter account, he decided to follow Saskatchewan’s Graham DaLaet around the Quail Hollow course in Charlotte. The PGA championship is one of four major tournaments on the PGA Tour.
Craddock, described on his Twitter profile as a « mad golfer » who wears shorts 365 days a year, said the event was not just about golf.
« You also were obligated to participate in product overviews, have conversations with product specialists, » he said. « I met with the health care lead out of Seattle who looks after Lexmark’s business. I met with the Canadian area vice president and had meaningful conversations around what Lexmark could do and what Lexmark wasn’t doing to support our needs in Saskatchewan. »
Craddock said the original contract with Lexmark was signed by someone else before Craddock was at eHealth. He acknowledges he was pushing eHealth to deepen its business relationship with Lexmark.
« We had a provincial agreement in place and we were looking at ways to optimize, absolutely, » he said. « We were looking to take advantage of a pre-existing relationship. »
eHealth’s conflict of interest policy at the time explicitly forbade just this sort of trip for employees.
The policy provided « examples of gifts that should be declined:
- Gifts or entertainment that could influence or appear to influence, business decisions.
- Flights and/or registration to events.
- All-expense-paid trips. »
That policy is likely what got Craddock’s eHealth colleagues fired. However it appears to have had little influence on some of Craddock’s travel decisions during his four-year tenure at eHealth.
Vendor-sponsored travel relatively common at eHealth
Craddock estimated he took about two vendor-sponsored trips per year to locations like Las Vegas, Orlando and Austin.
« It’s not always looked at as a free trip. In some cases, these are taking us away from our families, taking us away from our jobs, to continue to promote the work that we’re doing, » he said.
I know for a fact that the Lexmark trip that I went on, a prior approval wasn’t completed, so I violated policy on that particular instance.– Wilbour Craddock, former Chief Information Officer at eHealth
He noted that besides that trip to the PGA Championship, he never received free tickets to a sporting event.
According to eHealth policy, employees taking out-of-province trips were required to get a « prior approval » form filled out in advance of the trip.
Craddock acknowledges that he failed to get CEO approval for the PGA Championship trip to North Carolina.
« I know for a fact that the Lexmark trip that I went on, a prior approval wasn’t completed, so I violated policy on that particular instance, » he told CBC’s iTeam in an interview.
‘Prior approval’ after-the-fact
CBC submitted a freedom of information request for all of Craddock’s travel records.
The PGA trip didn’t show up in the records at all, but dozens of other trips did.
In six cases, Craddock got his « prior approval » form signed by the CEO after he returned from the trip. He told CBC he would have had verbal prior approval, though he didn’t fill out the paperwork.
He said it’s « an administrative shortcoming not an approval shortcoming. » He said in some cases, the paperwork wasn’t filled out because the trips were last minute.
Craddock said there were lots of cases where his travel was paid for by taxpayers. That was the norm, he said. Craddock said when he took vendor-paid trips they were always approved by the CEO, except for the PGA trip.
« It was a standing principle that where possible we would leverage vendor supported funding to attend conferences and different national or international meetings, » said Craddock. « And that was not exclusive to me or to people in my division. That was more broadly within the organization and was, I guess, led by our CEO at the time. »
That CEO, Susan Antosh, was removed from her role in October 2017 and was assigned as a special advisor to the deputy minister of health. She was dismissed from that role in March 2018. No explanation has been offered for her departure.
Late 2017 and early 2018 was a tumultuous time at eHealth. On January 24, 2018 the entire board was replaced with one exception. Some members had resigned while others’ terms had expired.
In the legislature in May, Minister Jim Reiter said eHealth is getting set to take on responsibility for all IT for the entire province, « so it just seemed that it was an appropriate time for a bit of a change of direction. »
During the turmoil, the organization was run by interim CEOs.
The NDP’s Danielle Chartier raised concern about all the turnover saying « the organization, with all due respect, seems not entirely stable at this point in time. »
Reiter replied, « I would say, you know, your concerns are valid. »
When CBC asked eHealth about Craddock’s travel history, the Crown corporation said in an email Craddock is no longer with the organization.
The spokesperson also noted « eHealth has undergone significant renewal over the past 9 months including the appointment of a new Board of Directors and the hiring of a new Chief Executive Officer. »
It also said it has recently enhanced its code of conduct processes and that, « the Provincial Auditor is aware of the issue and is reviewing the matter. »
Vendor-sponsored travel with health region employees
Craddock said the vendor-sponsored trips were regularly discussed at weekly senior leadership meetings and no one ever expressed doubts about approving them.
He pointed to one example he said was discussed by the team in 2016. Dell reseller WBM was offering all-expenses paid trips to a conference in Austin, Texas, for Craddock and some eHealth staff.
In the meeting, Craddock said, it was noted that employees of the Saskatoon, Regina and Prairie North health divisions were also sending staff on the trip.
« So we discussed the fact that others from the health system were attending this. The offer was made to us and the decision was made that it would be best that we attended as well, » said Craddock.
While eHealth’s policy forbids taking vendor-sponsored trips, the Saskatoon Health Region (SHR) policy says it’s OK. It says staff may accept « tokens exchanged as part of protocol/the normal exchange of hospitality between persons doing business together (including lunches and trips, meals, travel, accommodations paid by the vendor). »
If I was to walk back in time would I do things maybe differently? Yeah possibly.– Wilbour Craddock
In an email from the new Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), which has subsumed all health regions including Saskatoon, a spokesperson defended the SHR policy.
It said « an employee taking a vendor-paid trip is not, in itself, considered to be a conflict of interest. » It said such trips are permitted if they are for educational purposes and that trips are reviewed by management « to ensure no conflict exists, and then to confirm safeguards are in place to deter any future related conflict of interest. »
A few days later, the SHA wrote CBC a follow-up email saying it « agrees that the former regional health authority (Saskatoon) conflict of interest policies need to be revamped and strengthened into one clear, strong provincial conflict of interest policy. This process is underway. »
Craddock said that at eHealth, part of the justification for accepting the vendor’s offer was that it saved taxpayers money.
« I think that was part of the underlying rationale as to why we leveraged vendor relationships when we did for conference participation, » he said. « It wasn’t for every single conference. »
eHealth featured in Dell promotional video
Craddock said that because Saskatchewan was such a key account for Dell, the company asked eHealth if it would participate in a promotional video. It was written into the contract between the two entities he said.
« The commitment was that if we took that on we would do some promotion material with them. So the creation of the video was one of the promotion items that we did. I spoke at a conference at a breakfast session for them. I spoke at another conference out in Vancouver at an evening session. »
In the video, Craddock talks about one of the attractions of working with Dell and « the value of the Federation End-User Computing Solution to their managed service delivery. »
« We’re looking for partners, not vendors, » Craddock says in the video. « We have a lot of vendors but the Federation, we’re partnering with them because of the outcomes that we’re trying to drive towards. »
Companies offer trips to curry favour: expert
Maureen Kilgour, who’s an expert in business ethics and corruption, said the practices at eHealth and the Saskatoon Health Region are surprising and troubling.
She said a public entity agreeing to do a promotional video for a private company is « sort of weird » and problematic.
« You stop seeing the separation between the contractor and the contractee, » said Kilgour. « These public sector officials are supposed to be representing the public interest and we’re seeing like blurring of the relationship between the people that we in the public would be engaging to provide services to us. »
She said conflict of interest policies are in place to protect public sector employees and the public from corporations seeking undue influence through gifts.
« Companies offer these things for a reason – because it’s part of their own cost of doing business. They’re trying to curry favour, build relationships and that’s really part of their marketing, » she said.
« We know that influence matters right? That’s why companies spend so much money on doing that. »
She said she was « shocked » to see that the Saskatoon Health Region explicitly allows vendor paid trips.
She said the problem with these sorts of gifts is they don’t promote transparency and are liable to abuse or, at the very least, suspicion.
« We would never know if there was some sort of favourable treatment because of these trips. That’s why we always talk about perceived conflict of interest, » she said.
Kilgour said she’s not surprised to see that private companies are offering these sorts of trips – it’s what they do. But she said politicians and bureaucrats should follow a higher standard.
« All of these policies are really there to prevent any influence on decision making in the public and really to avoid any risk or even a perceived conflict of interest perceived influence in procurement. »
Running the public sector « more like a business »
Craddock said attending the Dell conference in Austin made a lot of sense for people in the Saskatchewan health care system.
He said eHealth and the entire system were big Dell customers.
Craddock sat in on a small group session with Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell and he learned what Dell was planning for the future. He said these sorts of interactions are valuable.
« People want to invest in you because they want to work with you. And they want to work with you because they understand what you’re trying to achieve and you’ve had those meaningful conversations, » he said.
He said these sorts of interactions are the norm in the private sector but acknowledged they can be controversial for public servants like himself.
« We’re always challenged in the public sector to run more like a business, » Craddock said. « When you try to run like a business you can be seen in a negative light. »
Ethics expert Kilgour said politicians and bureaucrats need to understand that standards of what is acceptable are different for people in the public and private sectors.
« It’s completely different when the public sector is involved because there’s another element of trust, » she said. « So even though they might have been naive, they might have been lulled into thinking they’re in sort of more of a private kind of corporate environment — that company to company relationships are ok. But it’s not because it is the public sector. »
Craddock said looking back at his travel practices does get him thinking.
« Does it give me pause to reflect on how best to work within the public sector? Yeah it does for sure. And if I was to walk back in time would I do things maybe differently? Yeah possibly. »
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