EDMONTON — Political watchers say an Independent member of the Alberta legislature has put all his credibility on the line with allegations of sweeping criminal corruption in the province’s health department.
And they say if he doesn’t provide the proof as promised, he risks falling from populist health-care folk hero to reckless, reputation-ruining political demagogue.
“It is a type of McCarthyism,” Calgary political scientist Keith Brownsey said Wednesday, referring to Raj Sherman’s firestorm comments in the house earlier in the week.
“It is if we take the term McCarthyism to mean unsubstantiated allegations which could damage an individual and institution.
“If he cannot bring forward evidence to substantiate these serious allegations, his credibility will crumble. The legitimacy of who he is and what he stands for will just fade.”
Sherman, an emergency room doctor and former junior health minister while with the government, launched the controversy on Monday.
He stood in the house and accused Edmonton health officials of covering up the deaths of 250 patients who had been on a lung cancer surgery waiting list. He said doctors who wanted to speak out about it were either punished or paid off with millions in taxpayers dollars to keep quiet.
He said health officials then committed fraud by keeping two sets of financial books to cover up the payoffs.
Sherman also named two health officials in the coverup, including Dr. Trevor Theman, registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Theman has denied the allegations.
Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky said he has looked into the matter, but found nothing to substantiate the claims.
The comments were made in the legislature chamber, where politicians have immunity from defamation laws in order to allow for the unfettered discourse considered vital to democracy.
Sherman has refused to repeat the allegations outside the chamber. If he did, he could be sued.
But he has said he will table the proof in the house next week when, as and Independent member, he gets to ask another question in the legislature rotation. He also wants some kind of immunity for any whistleblowers he names.
Sherman did not show up in the legislature on Tuesday but gave media interviews during which he changed his story on the bribes and raised issues that only served to further cloud things.
He told one media outlet the bribes were not paid in cash as first suggested, but in the form of pork-barrel jobs. He suggested to another interviewer the bribes were part of signed confidentiality agreements.
The comments raised more questions such as, if the bribes were disguised as political pork-barrel jobs, why would there be a need to keep two sets of books?
McCarthyism refers to the actions of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Using the power and platform of political office, he made sweeping allegations of communist infiltrators in the federal government. He accused many people with no proof. Reputations were ruined and people were blacklisted.
When pressed for evidence, McCarthy often changed his story before ultimately being censured by the senate. He endured because of public fear that perhaps he was right and there was indeed a communist cabal in Washington.
Political scientist Chaldeans Mensah said there are echoes of that in how Sherman is raising this issue with a public already concerned about health delivery and spending.
“There’s an element of demagoguery here, trying to appeal to people’s emotions,” said Mensah, with Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan University.
Doreen Barrie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said it’s unfortunate that Sherman has made himself the issue and not the topic.
“If he’s proven right, then this is a huge issue, not only the fact people died but also that other people stayed quiet about it — and this is something Albertans should be aware of,” said Barrie.
It’s been a roller-coaster few months for Sherman.
He had been the junior health minister for less than three years before he was turfed from caucus last November for criticizing his own government on long wait lists and problems in health.
He crossed the floor to sit as an Independent and became a hero, a self-styled noble turncoat famous for shooting from the hip and taking no prisoners. He was nicknamed “The Shermanator.”
There were many targets: he called the head of the Alberta Health Services an “amateur” and decried “knucklehead” decisions that destroyed staff morale.
He called his former boss, then health minister Ron Liepert, a rude bully who demoralized frontline health workers, and dismissed Stelmach as a health-care promise breaker.
There was more controversy. After he was turfed from caucus, he accused colleagues of a whisper campaign to ruin his reputation by suggesting he was mentally unstable.
Sherman later publicly accused Stelmach of trying to get him decertified as a doctor, but offered no proof.
Stelmach, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said he and other politicians will take the slings and arrows, but said, “It is not fair to raise allegations about people who are outside of the assembly, to have their integrity questioned without providing some kind of proof.
“Waiting a week is not fair to those people who were named,” the premier said.