An abuse of government procurement standards

“One of this government’s least admirable traits,” said a friend who admires much the Dexter Government has done, “is its refusal to ever admit it made a mistake.”

The impulse to stay an obviously incorrect course is common enough in government, and it commonly leads to even greater error.

This month, the Dexter Government’s refusal to admit mistakes in its reprehensible treatment of a Cape Breton addiction recovery centre led to further error in the form of a dishonest procurement process.

On Friday, the Board of Directors of Talbot House announced it would not submit a tender to supply the addiction recovery services it had provided in Cape Breton for the last 53 years until a series of indefensible actions by the Department of Community Services (DCS) forced it to shut down six months ago.

It was the right decision. The DCS request for proposals (RFP) was manifestly stacked against Talbot. Officials responsible for Nova Scotia’s procurement process should never have allowed it to go forward. That they did not intervene marks a significant backward step in ethical government purchasing.

No one in government or politics believes DCS would have issued the RFP if it did not have a candidate lined up to respond. Rumor has it the likely upstart bidder is Crosbie House, a recovery centre in New Minas that has presumably been enticed to open a branch plant in Cape Breton, possibly with support from the Membertou First Nation.

The RFP issued August 1 was unusually complex. It ran to more than 50 pages, and contained a highly prescriptive outline of how such a treatment centre would run (surprising in light of the fact DCS has no statutory authority over addiction treatment centres). There were many trip-wires in the form of detailed requirements that, if not precisely met, could disqualify a bidder. In addition to the RFP’s unusual length and complexity, it came with an unusually short return time. Bidders had until August 28 to complete and submit their detailed responses.

It is no exaggeration to say Talbot’s 10-member volunteer board—almost all of whom are busy professionals—would have had to commit several hundred person-hours to meet its terms.

That burden, while onerous, would not have proven insurmountable had there been reason to believe a Talbot submission would be evaluated honestly and fairly. Unfortunately, there was compelling reason to conclude the opposite: it would be evaluated with extreme prejudice.

Tender evaluation teams traditionally have three or more members: a representative from the procurement office to advise on procedures, and two or more people knowledgeable in the subject area, in this case, addiction recovery services. Unusually, the DCS RFP had only two members: the traditional representative from procurement services, and Marika Lathem of DCS.

For anyone who has not been following the Talbot debacle, Lathem is the official who wrote the error-riddled report of her own biased “organizational review” of Talbot House, who laced that report with slanderous innuendo against Fr. Paul Abbass, and who then published the malicious report even though police had already cleared Abbass of the false charges she so enthusiastically promoted.

That an official with a track record this odious would be the only one to supply substantive evaluation of the proposals for addiction recovery is, on its face, an abuse of the tendering process.

Some of us are old enough to remember the days when Nova Scotia governments routinely corrupted the tendering process to reward friends and punish enemies. The development of rigorous, impartial tendering standards marks a signal achievement in the last generation of Nova Scotia government.

That the Dexter Government would be prepared to sweep those standards aside simply to avoid facing up to what DCS has done in this case is disheartening. That procurement officials would not stand up for the integrity of their system is dismaying.

Scorched earth for Cape Breton addicts

On Wednesday, the Department of Community Services made good on Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse’s vindictive plan to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to replace the residential addiction treatment services so ably provided by the Talbot House Recovery Centre for the last half century.

Those services came screeching to a halt last February, after a biased and incompetent “organizational review” by the department’s  director of family and youth services, Marika Lathem, lent temporary credence to what turned out to be false charges of sexual misconduct against the home’s executive director.

Peterson-Rafuse and her officials are variously quoted as saying the Talbot House Society is welcome to respond to the RFP, or she has not ruled out allowing them to apply.

You can download the RFP here. My very quick read this evening suggests it contains poisoned pills that may make it incompatible with the Talbot Society’s philosophical approach to recovery, and easy for a hostile departmental review team to rationalize rejecting any Talbot bid.

The person in charge of that team? None other than Marika Lathem, principal author of the incompetent and biased review that brought on this debacle. This brazen conflict of interest compromises the hard-won integrity of Nova Scotia’s procurement system, and ought to concern those in charge of that system.

It’s hard to imagine who else might bid on this RFP. No existing Cape Breton organization seems likely, but the canny strategists at DCS are not likely to have issued the tender call without assurances someone other than Talbot would apply. The smart money is that Lathem has cajoled one of the four existing recovery centres on the mainland into opening a branch plant in Cape Breton.

That’ll go over well in Scotchtown and Florence.

A brazenly self-serving exercise of bureaucratic power

Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse will finally sit down with the Talbot House board of directors Tuesday, but only after her department’s shrewd mandarins have pre-empted any actual purpose the meeting might serve.

The Talbot board asked for the session months ago, seeking a peaceful resolution to her department’s reckless assaults on the half-century-old, community-built addiction recovery center. Peterson-Rafuse readily agreed to the meeting in principle, then bobbed, weaved, and stalled until her officials rendered it meaningless.

First she couldn’t meet because the legislature was sitting. Then she postponed again, just long enough for the department to announce the RFP* it hopes will kill any chance of Talbot House reopening.

DCS announced the RFP to replace the services Talbot provided on the very day its bureaucrats gave the legislature’s Community Services Committee a selective and distorted account of events leading to Talbot’s closure, an account that depicted department functionaries as blameless for and even shocked at the sordid sequence of events.

When George Savoury, Executive Director of Family and Community Supports, emerged from that hearing, a reporter asked whether DCS had any mea culpa to offer.

“No,” he replied.

Another reporter asked what lessons the department had learned from the Talbot imbroglio.

“We will be, as a result of this experience, doing more frequent reviews,” Savoury said.

It was a brazenly self-serving conclusion. The DCS review of Talbot House is hardly a template anyone would want to replicate.

  • It led to the closure of a valued community institution that had served some of Nova Scotia’s most tormented citizens.
  • It promoted false allegations of sexual impropriety against an innocent man, the organization’s executive director, Fr. Paul Abbass.
  • It based these allegations on vague hearsay from anonymous third parties—allegations for which police could find no basis in fact.

Even after an eight-week police review cleared Abbass, DCS saw fit to publish a report that repeated the sinister-sounding innuendo—still anonymous, and described in a manner so vague it would be impossible to refute, no matter how innocent the target.

Compounding the slander directed at Abbass, the DCS report contained additional inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and outright falsehoods. To cite but a few:

  • It said the recovery house had no budget, when in fact, a budget was attached to its annual application for funding.
  • It said the annual financial statements submitted by Talbot’s accounting firm were unsigned; in fact, they were signed.
  • It criticized aspects of Talbot’s financial management in a manner so uncomprehending as to betray broad ignorance of not-for-profit accounting practices
  • It complained that Talbot House had no formal orientation for new staff, when Talbot had not hired a new employee for six years.

Stripped of bias and errors, the report boiled down to a complaint that Talbot had been slow to implement personnel procedures such as job descriptions and performance reviews.

In short, DCS carried out a review and released a report that was slanderous, error-filled, and biased, yet the man in charge offered no apology, and proclaimed the only take-home to be that more frequent reviews are needed.

Meanwhile the minister responsible dithered and stonewalled long enough for her officials to render today’s meeting meaningless.

What a disgrace.

– – –

* An RFP is a request for proposals, the first step in a tendering process. DCS will request proposals to provide recovery center services in Cape Breton. The RFP will set forth the criteria the winning bidder must meet.  The department  will evaluate submissions and select a winner, who will then get government money to provide the very services Talbot House pioneered in Cape Breton on a volunteer basis 53 years ago. DCS has said Talbot House is free to compete for this tender, but I will be surprised if the criteria do not include features tacitly intended to exclude Talbot—such as a willingness to accept clients on Methadone, use of which is contrary to Talbot’s philosophy. If effect, the Talbot House Society is being forced to compete for the right to supply the service it pioneered.

Another Talbot House test for the NDP

On Tuesday, members of the Nova Scotia Legislature’s Community Services Committee will get a chance to question the bureaucrat who promoted what turned out to be false allegations of sexual misconduct against an innocent priest, and to ask her superiors why they still haven’t withdrawn a report containing slanderous innuendo against him.

The department’s actions led to the closure of Talbot House, which had for 53 years provided safe lodging, meaningful work, and successful treatment for some of Nova Scotia’s most troubled citizens.

Marika Lathem, Director of Family and Youth Services and the principal author of the error-filled report, will testify. The Talbot House Society Board said her review of the organization, “was fundamentally flawed in process and analysis, procedurally inadequate, lacked balance, and contributed to a report that contained numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations that, by their nature, are prejudicial, biased and misrepresent the history, governance, and operation of Talbot House.”

George Savoury, Executive Director of Family and Community Supports, and Associate Deputy Minister David Ryan will also appear. As Lathem’s superiors, they either failed to vet her report prior to publication, or failed to notice its obvious errors, inconsistencies, and casual calumny.


Chairing the committee is Kings North MLA Jim Morton who, coincidentally, served as the Annapolis Valley District Health Authority’s Manager of Addiction Services before becoming an MLA. With that background, Morton will have first-hand experience with Fortress DCS.

Last week, another coincidence: DCS gave itself a 30-day extension to the statutory deadline for responding to four freedom-of-information requests about Talbot. This had the effect of guaranteeing the requested material will not be available for Tuesday’s hearing. The department said meeting the initial time limit for the large number of records requested could unreasonably interfere with its operations. In one of the requests at issue, the “large number of records requested” was one: a single, easily located document.

Last time a house committee got the opportunity to consider the Talbot House scandal, DCS Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse conducted a one-woman filibuster in response to the first question asked of her. She spoke for nearly an hour, running out the clock before opposition MLAs could get in a second question.

Legislature committee rules do not facilitate effective cross-examination of evasive or hostile witnesses. It will be interesting to see whether Morton allows prolix opening statements and time-wasting by  government members to frustrate meaningful exploration of the Talbot mess Tuesday.

For decades, concern about how DCS treated Nova Scotia’s down-and-out lay close to the heart of the New Democratic Party. Tuesday’s hearing will offer another measure of how much the long road to power has changed the party.

Malice compounds DCS mishandling of the Talbot House fiasco

In a sign the Dexter government plans to tough out criticism of its handling of the Talbot House fiasco, the Department of Community Services (DCS) has posted the report of its controversial organizational review of the much admired Cape Breton addiction recovery centre.

In response, the Talbot House Society’s board of directors released a detailed, point-by-point response to the DCS report. You can read the DCS report here; the response of the Talbot House board here.

I have only had a few minutes to scan both of these documents. I am struck by how much the DCS report relies on third-party hearsay that the author, Marika Lathem, DCS Director of Family and Youth Services, accepts as factual without further verification. Even without the society’s rebuttal, it reads like a hatchet job.

Given that the CBRM Police Dept. spent eight weeks considering the department’s so-called “evidence” before concluding there were no grounds even to open a criminal investigation, it is astonishing DCS would now publish these discredited slurs. It’s as if the department were determined to undermine Fr. Paul Abbass’s vindication, despite the police department’s implicit rejection of its “evidence.” It adds up to a prima facie case of malice.

Also noteworthy is the ease with which the board dispenses with many, if not most, of Lathem’s bureaucratic procedural complaints against the society. It appears she took no greater care with easily verifiable facts than with the third-hand slurs against Fr. Abbass.

I will have more to say when I have read both documents thoroughly.

Talbot House strikes back

The board of directors of Talbot House, the much admired addiction recovery center shut down this winter after the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services raised vague and, as we now know, false allegations of sexual misconduct against its executive director, today issued two news releases that add up to a sweeping condemnation of the department’s behaviour.

How the Dexter government reacts will be a major test of its integrity. Will it circle the wagons? Or will it implement real reforms?

Please read the releases for yourself here and here. [Note: I have removed contact information for the board chair.]

On the Cape Breton Regional Police Service announcement late Friday that it had found no grounds to investigate the centre’s Executive Director, the board writes:

The Board of Directors initially contacted the police in response to a report to the Board from the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, of serious allegations and complaints concerning Father Abbass. These allegations and complaints were provided to Ms. Marika Lathem, Director of Family and Youth Services with the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, initially by the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness, and subsequently, during the course of an organizational review of Talbot House.

The Board of Directors made immediate and repeated written requests of Ms. Lathem and the Department of Community Services for the details of any allegations or complaints, or information that would allow a timely and balanced investigation of the matter, based on principles of procedural fairness and natural justice. To date, the Board of Directors has received no response and no direct complaint concerning Father Abbass. Despite our repeated requests, the Department of Community Services has provided no substantive information that would compel a formal investigation.

…Although we are pleased that Father Abbass has been vindicated of any wrongdoing, the delay in resolving this matter has resulted in an untold human cost, and was directly responsible for the series of decisions that resulted in the eventual discharge of residents from Talbot House.

Following receipt of a single, non-sexual complaint against Abbass last December, Ms. Lathem, who is Director of Family and Youth Services, launched an “organizational review” of Talbot House. Despite media requests and at least two FOIPOP requests (including one from Contrarian), the report has not been released, but according to the board’s news release, it reaches two main conclusions:

  •  “Talbot House is not operating in compliance with the majority of the Standards for Recovery Houses” and
  • “There is no evidence that the board has been actively overseeing the operation of Talbot House.”

In a telephone interview, Board chair John Gainer, a highly regarded Sydney psychologist, said the board “absolutely rejected the conclusions,” saying they were based on  a lack of proper evidence. He said the board had prepared a point-by-point rebuttal of the report that would be faxed to the department Sunday evening.

The news release is equally scathing:

The details of the report are presented as a series of “bulleted” items, many without context, elaboration, or analysis. It is the opinion of the Board of Directors of Talbot House that the review was fundamentally flawed in process and analysis, procedurally inadequate, lacked balance, and contributed to a report that contains numerous inaccuracies, and misrepresentations that, by their nature, are prejudicial, biased, and misrepresent the history, governance, and operation of Talbot House.

The board acknowledges that it was not fully complaint with the 2008 guidelines, which deal with procedural matters like job descriptions and performance appraisals, but insists, “there is ample evidence that the board was addressing these policy and operational issues in a systematic fashion.”

The news release also confirms that, even as Lathem’s vague accusations against Abbass sputtered to a halt due to lack of evidence, the department moved aggressively to ensure Talbot House would never reopen. On April 4, without advance notice to the board or any public announcement, the department retroactively terminated the centre’s funding as of April 1. Lathem told the board the department would issue a request for proposals for addiction services in Cape Breton, adding tartly that the Talbot House Society was welcome to submit a proposal.

The news release terms this action, “pre-emptive and unnecessarily punitive.” In previous years, funding was renewed automatically every April 1.

In short, the board describes a pattern of behaviour that is at once imperious and incompetent. It is a pattern many social service organizations and societies in Nova Scotia will recognize. In fact, it’s an attitude long complained of by NDP activists before the party gained power in 2009.

If even half of what the Talbot board says is true, then a searching, independent, top-to-bottom review of the Department of Community Services is long overdue.

A few background points:

— By all accounts, the Lathem report reflects a departmental penchant for placing process ahead of outcomes. Throughout this controversy, I have not heard anyone question Talbot’s success in treating addicts, many of them tough young men hooked on hard drugs.

— Many social service organizations and volunteer societies are struggling to comply with departmental guidelines requiring written policies, job descriptions, and performance reviews, and they are doing so without financial or administrative support from the department that imposed these governance requirements.

— To provide round-the-clock treatment and residential care for a rotating population of 18 men addicted to gambling, alcohol, or drugs, Talbot had a fulltime staff of six. That probably didn’t leave a lot of time for paperwork.

— Although their names may not be well known in Halifax, the Talbot Board is no random collection of hayseeds. It consists of bluechip professionals and community leaders, most of whom have distinguished records of achievement.

If Darrell Dexter treats this challenge as a political threat to be defended against with all of his government’s formidable powers of communications and institutional resistance, a great opportunity will have been missed.

On the other hand, if he sees this as an opportunity to step back and order a searching, independent review of the way social services are delivered in Nova Scotia, then some good will have come out of the disgraceful treatment accorded Fr. Paul Abbass and Talbot House,

Community Services Dept. vs. Talbot House

Exactly as many of us expected, the vague, shadowy accusations of sexual impropriety against Fr. Paul Abbass have proven false.

The Cape Breton Regional Police announced late Friday that the department has completed its review of information in the case — they were cagey about who was being investigated, but everyone knows it was Abbass — and they will not proceed with a criminal investigation. There was nothing to investigate.

I hope Fr. Paul Abbass will have the generosity of spirit to resume his duties as Executive Director of Talbot House, the community-built recovery center that has for 53 years successfully treated men addicted to alcohol, drugs, and gambling, and where Abbass served ably and generously for 17 13 years.

But that’s a pretty tall order. Just consider the toll the allegations have taken.

For eight weeks, the falsely accused priest suffered his public humiliation in quiet dignity. He was forced to step down from his post as Executive Director of Talbot House, and stripped of his duties as Vicar General, spokesman for the Antigonish Diocese, and pastor to four rural Cape Breton parishes.

From that litany of jobs, anyone can see Abbass was an exceptionally busy man. While running Talbot House and ministering to four congregations, he handled the unenviable task of speaking for the church after Bishop Lahey was arrested for possessing child pornography, and while church property was liquidated to pay for its settlement with abuse victims.

Abbass was guilty of nothing more than resisting the bureaucratic niceties demanded by Department of Community Services bureaucrats who don’t like Talbot’s recovery model of care, and who moved aggressively during Abbass’s eight-week ordeal to ensure the centre never reopens.

As it became apparent that the initial allegation of gross misconduct was a non-starter, the DCS official handling the file scrambled to find some rationale for the department’s overreach in this disgraceful episode. Last week, Marika Lathem produced a report that refocused the department’s gunsights from Abbass to the Talbot board of directors, whose governance it criticized.

Lathem’s self-serving report should have no more credibility than the dubious allegation she originally brought forward and promoted with reckless disregard for the consequences.

Over four decades of living in Cape Breton, I have heard nothing but admiration for Talbot House and praise for its work. As for the bureaucratic niceties DCS cherishes, many if not most care-giving organizations in Nova Scotia are struggling to implement the litany of policies, job descriptions, and performance appraisals currently in vogue among public administration wonks. They do so, it might be added, without financial or administrative support from DCS.

For decades, the NDP has challenged the unfeeling policies of this backward department. Now it’s time for the Dexter Government to put those ideals into practice:

Remove the discredited Lathem from any role in the affairs of Talbot House, and withdraw her report.

Appoint someone independent of the department to assist the Talbot Board in the onerous task of undoing the damage caused by the department’s misguided actions, with a budget sufficient to the task.

Undertake a searching, top-to-bottom review of Community Services by someone with no connection to the department. Someone who will actually listens to the men, women, and caregivers who suffer under its inept administration. Someone who will help implement the vision — so long championed by the NDP — of respectful support for those Nova Scotians most in need.