Gas tab gets paramedic fired

The British Columbia Ambulance Service has clamped down on the use of its 500-plus fuel credit cards after one Vancouver-area paramedic reportedly spent $15,500 on “inappropriate” purchases during an 18-month period.

According to a Finance Ministry audit report, the paramedic's card was assigned to an ambulance, all of which are diesel-powered. But auditors discovered that approx?imately $15,500 was spent from January 1, 2004, to June 21, 2005, on unleaded-gas purchases that were “potentially associated” with the paramedic.

The ambulances cannot run on ordinary gas.

Following the discovery, the service fired the paramedic, B.C. Ambulance Service chief financial officer Brian Mann told the Georgia Straight.

“It was enough that we decided we had to take staffing action, unfortunately,” Mann said.

“We were unable to press criminal charges because of the nature of the documentation,” he added. “We issued a letter from our lawyer, saying give the money back, but we haven't commenced any legal action.”

Mann said the service has yet to receive any repayment from the paramedic.

According to the audit, the cards can no longer be used to pay at the pump, as they were for most of the questionable gas purchases uncovered by the auditors. Now users must sign a credit-card receipt with the gas-station clerk.

“The signatures now provide accountability for the transaction and a paper trail for review,” according to the audit, which was requested by the service and the Health Ministry.

The Straight obtained a copy of the report last week following a freedom-of-information request. A number of sections were deleted on the grounds that release of the records could violate solicitor-client privilege or could harm law enforcement or the financial interests of a public body. The report was completed on January 17.

“During our review, we identified potential irregular gas purchases beyond the scope of our project and communicated the information to the chief financial officer of BCAS,” the report says.

A summary of fuel purchases for all ambulances in the Vancouver region during the period 2000 to 2005 found approximately $300,000 of unleaded gas bought using the cards.

Asked if some of this was improper, Mann replied: “That's always a possibility.”

However, Mann said he believes the spending was legitimate. In some cases, diesel fuel may have wrongly been recorded as unleaded gas, while in others the fuel may have been bought for superintendents' vehicles, which use unleaded gas.

A B.C. woman filed a complaint against her municipality last year when her name and home address were posted on the Internet after she spoke at a municipal meeting.

According to a summary of the case in the 2005 annual report of the office of the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, the woman was annoyed to discover that her address was included in the meeting minutes, which were posted on the municipality's Web site. The report identifies neither the woman nor the municipality.

The woman complained to the commissioner's office that her privacy was violated.

The municipality did agree to remove her house number from the minutes, but not her street name. It also offered advice on how to remove information from Google's index.

The commissioner's office concluded that the municipality had done everything appropriate to help the complainant.

“We also observed that accountability of public bodies is at the heart of [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act], and, similarly, that the publication of minutes is a key part of local government accountability,” said the report, which was filed with Speaker Bill Barisoff on June 30.

The report added that participants in public meetings have traditionally been required to provide evidence of their property ownership or place of residence in order to qualify as people entitled to respond to development proposals. However, the municipality did agree to post conspicuous reminders to anyone registering to speak at its meetings that their identity will be a matter of public record.

Information and privacy commissioner David Loukidelis told the Straight that privacy issues are placing increasing demands on his office. This may be the result of publicity concerning several prominent breaches of privacy earlier this year.

Last March, the provincial government sold, at public auction, 41 used computer backup tapes containing personal information on thousands of British Columbians. A report by the commissioner's office on the sale found that the government had not taken reasonable security measures to protect the personal information from unauthorized disclosure.

“It's often the simplest mistakes that have the biggest consequences,” Loukidelis told the Straight, citing the decision to sell the tapes without proper checks and balances. “It tends to be the kind of thing that can easily be overlooked.”