Quebec health minister to review why officials paid for advice on how to talk about coronavirus

Click to play video: 'A question of appearances'
A question of appearances
WATCH: Many questions still remain regarding the hiring of an external firm to handle communications for the West Island Regional Health Authority at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring. Global's Felicia Parrillo explains – Jun 30, 2020

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé says he will review why the chief executive of the West Island health authority paid for advice on how to talk about coronavirus deaths.

Dubé made the comments at a news conference on Tuesday, responding to revelations by Global News that the West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (CIUSSS) paid more than $140,000 for advice on how to talk to journalists and elected officials about their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While he said he would look into the matter, the health minister also appeared to defend the contract.

“If they did that, they used their judgment and they made sure it was done for the right reason,” said Dubé.

Global News learned that the West Island CIUSSS spent $140,027.57 for the first 21 days of the contract from April 10 to April 30 after obtaining a copy of the bill, released through access to information legislation.

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The CIUSSS has refused to release additional details of how much it spent in May and June suggesting instead that Global News should file an additional access to information request to get the totals.

Click to play video: 'West Island Regional Health Authority spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside communication consultations during the covid19 crisis'
West Island Regional Health Authority spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside communication consultations during the covid19 crisis

The West Island CIUSSS used emergency powers, granted by Premier François Legault’s government on March 13 to protect the public from COVID-19, to award the contract to TACT Intelligence-conseil, a Quebec-based crisis management and lobbying firm.

“I’m making the assumption that this was made with good judgment, but you will allow me to look into it just to make sure that I understand the situation,” Dubé added.

Global News first asked Dubé’s office on June 26 about the contract and the government’s decision to appoint one of the TACT’s lead consultants listed for the file, Daniel Desharnais, to a new position in the Health Department as assistant deputy minister of “special projects.”

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Prior to Tuesday’s news conference, Dubé’s office referred these questions to the department, which has not yet provided responses.

Dubé took over the health portfolio in a cabinet shuffle, moving from a position as president of the Treasury Board, the department overseeing public spending, on June 22.

According to data compiled by the Institute for Investigative Journalism’s Project Pandemic cooperative, at least 371 people with COVID-19 have died and 1,433 were infected with the novel coronavirus at 46 public and private facilities on the West Island CIUSSS’ territory.

The IIJ mapped the data using Esri ArcGIS technology.

The CIUSSS awarded the contract on April 10, hours before the public would learn that officials from the health authority were present and overseeing operations at Résidence Herron over a two-week period as more than two dozen people died at the private home for seniors.

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In an email sent to the West Island health authority’s CEO Lynne McVey on the morning of April 10, TACT co-founder Manon Genest wrote that it was urgent for them to get started on the deal.

As part of its contract proposal, TACT suggested that it could help officials from the CIUSSS communicate with families, employees, journalists, and the general public. The firm also noted that at least three facilities within the West Island CIUSSS’ network were particularly affected by COVID-19 at that time.

McVey later approved the deal.

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TACT and the CIUSSS also told Global News that the firm helped support the CIUSSS during its conversations with elected officials. But TACT said this activity did not cross over into any lobbying activity.

Desharnais, the lead strategic adviser listed on the contract, was appointed to his new position in government by Dubé’s predecessor, Danielle McCann, less than a week after the TACT contract began.

Desharnais declined to provide details about when he first started discussions with the ministry about his new job, referring questions to the health ministry.

Montreal police and the Quebec coroner’s office are leading separate investigations into what happened at Herron.

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The ministry is also leading its own investigation into the deaths that is expected to review the actions of the CIUSSS, which was paying Desharnais and other consultants at TACT for their “crisis management” services.

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TACT said there was no conflict of interest, telling Global News in an email that Desharnais informed the firm of his new job on April 15, stopped working on the contract on April 16 and was publicly nominated to his new position on April 17. He started the job in government on April 20.

The West Island CIUSSS also defended the contract, saying it needed support for its media relations office which was already undergoing some restructuring at the time. It told Global News that it planned to add more staff as soon as possible.

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Negar Haghighat, a Montreal-based business consultant who has previously worked in marketing and public relations, questioned whether the contract was appropriate.

“I certainly think there’s much more than an appearance of a conflict,” Haghighat told Global News in an interview.

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TACT was previously awarded a separate contract last summer, worth $32,000, to help review the West Island health authority’s communications policies and help it restructure. Under the mandate of that contract, the CIUSSS was supposed to implement that plan starting in September, but it isn’t clear why it wasn’t able to complete this work.

TACT told Global News on Monday that it was still collaborating with the CIUSSS and that the health authority remained one of its clients.

Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19” is coordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, with the support of the Canadian Association of Journalists. The map of COVID-19 cases at long-term care facilities uses Esri ArcGIS technology.

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