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Metro North hospital service tried to gag whistleblower over corruption allegations


February 13, 2020 07:11:51

Australia’s biggest hospital service tried to silence a whistleblower who helped the ABC expose allegations it corruptly paid for psychiatrists to sue a former patient for defamation.

Key points:

  • Metro North’s lawyers demanded Alex Stewart stop the ABC publishing the story
  • Their letter has been referred to Queensland’s corruption watchdog by the Health Minister’s office
  • The State Opposition says the Minister should reveal what he knew and when

Metro North hired a top legal firm to warn its former senior commercial lawyer Alex Stewart against going public with the damaging allegations — including that it used legal threats to silence critics.

In a letter to Mr Stewart on Monday, Minter Ellison demanded he “take all reasonable steps” to stop the ABC from publishing the story.

“I think this is a pretty perfect example of the kind of aggressive legal tactics which have been used in order to silence people who raise any dissent or any criticism of the service,” Mr Stewart told the ABC.

The letter has since been referred to Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission (CCC) by the office of Health Minister Steven Miles, the ABC has been told.

This followed Mr Stewart contacting Mr Miles’s office to allege the letter was a reprisal against a whistleblower.

“It’s pretty clearly to try and shut down any disclosure to a journalist, and that’s the main purpose for it,” Mr Stewart said.

“I think it’s about time that the Minister showed some leadership in dealing with the behaviour that I’ve raised concerns about.”

Metro North is a $2.3 billion-a-year organisation that runs five hospitals including Australia’s largest, the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.

The ABC revealed Metro North paid for four psychiatrists to sue a former patient for $700,000 in damages for defamation, which Mr Stewart alleged to be a corrupt misuse of taxpayer funds.

The funding of the case is the subject of an internal investigation into “suspected … corrupt conduct”, according to Metro North’s Right to Information unit.

‘Just disgusting’

Opposition health spokeswoman Ros Bates weighed into the Metro North scandal, saying, “The fact that taxpayers are funding to sue a [former] patient is just disgusting”.

“Health bosses should be investigating patient complaints, not suing patients when they come forward to make these complaints,” Ms Bates told the ABC.

The Minter Ellison letter urged Mr Stewart to “recall all confidential or personal information” he shared with the ABC, claiming he was “likely” to have breached the patient’s privacy.

The letter claimed Mr Stewart did not enjoy whistleblower protections under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, citing reasons including that Metro North had “not failed to notify” him within six months of any investigation of his complaint.

Mr Stewart said this was false.

“It must be about a year and a half now that I’ve been putting this to them [and] I’ve not received anything in relation to this particular matter,” he said.

The letter said Metro North had hired another top legal firm, Ashurst, to investigate Mr Stewart’s claim that the defamation case against the patient was corruptly funded.

But Mr Stewart said there was “no real evidence of a bona fide investigation taking place”.

“I’ve had no-one come and ask me to have an interview with them about the disclosure matter,” he said.

Mr Stewart was a key whistleblower who helped expose an alleged nepotism scandal around former Metro North chief executive Malcolm Stamp.

The ABC has revealed the CCC appears to be moving towards extraditing Mr Stamp on corruption charges around an alleged scheme to give his daughter a job.

Minister should ‘come clean’: Bates

A spokeswoman for Mr Miles declined to say whether the Minister had known Metro North funded the defamation case.

She said he did, “not comment on individual patients or employment matters”.

“These decisions are made independently by hospital and health services under the arrangements introduced by the LNP [Liberal National Party],” the spokeswoman said.

She said under Palaszczuk Government reforms coming into effect in July, “Most staff will be employed by Queensland Health rather than their Health and Hospital Service”.

Ms Bates said the Minister needed to “come clean” on what he knew about the case.

“I think that any claim of bullying and intimidation should be properly investigated, the whistleblowers shouldn’t be made to be the bad person in any of these cases,” she said.

A Metro North spokeswoman said: “For legal, privacy and confidentiality reasons, we are unable to provide further comment.”












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