Witness tells court that former IWK CEO deleted emails related to expense questions

·4 min read
Tracy Kitch, centre, the former chief executive of the IWK Health Centre, a children's hospital, heads from provincial court during a break in Halifax on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Tracy Kitch, centre, the former chief executive of the IWK Health Centre, a children's hospital, heads from provincial court during a break in Halifax on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The former CEO of the IWK Health Centre deleted emails about her expenses to avoid them being captured by a freedom of information request, a Nova Scotia courtroom heard Thursday.

Gina Connell, chief of communications at the Halifax children's hospital, was in the witness box for a second day testifying for the Crown in the trial of Tracy Kitch. Kitch is facing charges of fraud over $5,000 and breach of trust.

Connell testified that following the receipt of an access to information request CBC News filed related to Kitch's expenses in 2017, she attempted to reassure the CEO.

"I had told her not to worry and she said that she wasn't worried, she already deleted her emails," she told the court.

When CBC News published a story in June 2017 about Kitch's expenses, Connell testified that Kitch blamed the hospital's finance department for not paying enough attention to her travel and hospitality disclosure.

'Something was significantly wrong'

Connell testified she initially became concerned about what was happening at the hospital as Kitch's hospitality and travel expenses were first being prepared for public posting in accordance with a directive from the Nova Scotia Finance Department in late 2016.

An initial draft she saw pegged Kitch's expenses at about $34,000. The version Connell was eventually told to post was for about $16,000.

Her initial reaction was that "something was significantly wrong," Connell told prosecutor Peter Dostal.

Connell said she began making notes about any meetings or conversations she had related to Kitch's expenses and the subsequent information requests from CBC News. She also raised concerns with then chief financial officer Stephen D'Arcy about what she was seeing, but testified that she was rebuffed.

"He called me to say not to worry, that Tracy had an education allowance as part of her contract, and that they decided that many of these trips could fall under that allowance," she said.

Emails withheld

When Connell countered that the provincial directive called for all expenses to be disclosed, she testified that D'Arcy told her it was a grey area and that people "don't know what they're not missing."

D'Arcy also said he'd discussed the matter with then board chair Bob Hanf and Kitch, and that they both signed off on the decision, Connell testified.

Under cross-examination, defence lawyer Jacqueline King pointed Connell to a passage in her notes that said Kitch told her she'd asked D'Arcy not to move any trips out of her expense report.

"Better that it is all there rather than have it come out later," King read. "[Kitch] said she's not worried about it."

Connell told King that she believed Kitch, D'Arcy and IWK general legal counsel Jen Feron were acting inappropriately. According to her notes, Feron and D'Arcy both suggested to her that she delete emails.

D'Arcy and Feron also withheld emails from a freedom of information disclosure package that would have shown Connell questioning D'Arcy about issues with Kitch's expenses, Connell testified.

Secret recording

She agreed with King that she signed a confidentiality agreement when she went to work at the IWK, but Connell also said she consulted a lawyer for advice and contacted the offices of the provincial ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner with her concerns about what was happening at the hospital.

Connell also acknowledged secretly recording a conversation with D'Arcy, something she said she only did once. On redirect by Dostal, Connell said she made the recording because she was "very afraid" of D'Arcy and how he might pressure her.

"It wasn't a smart thing to do, but it was under that kind of pressure and anxiety and nervousness and his demeanour and intimidation" that she did what she did, Connell told the court.

Connell's communications colleague at the hospital, Nick Cox, testified that although he did not feel threatened by D'Arcy, he was aware that Connell felt threatened.

Cox testified that he had "awkward" conversations with Feron about email etiquette and why he kept certain emails. In the course of one conversation, Feron told him, "That's an email you should have kept," Cox told the court.

"She didn't say delete it, but when you say, 'Well, that an example of an email you should keep,' I took that as to be, 'You should keep some but not the others.'"

The trial continues Friday.

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