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Vitalité CEO 'impartial,' despite presence at PC fundraiser, board chair says

The Vitalité Health Network board of directors is defending the presence of the authority’s CEO, Dr. France Desrosiers, at a Progressive Conservative fundraising dinner last Friday. (Gilles Boudreau/Radio-Canada - image credit)
The Vitalité Health Network board of directors is defending the presence of the authority’s CEO, Dr. France Desrosiers, at a Progressive Conservative fundraising dinner last Friday. (Gilles Boudreau/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The chair of the Vitalité Health Network board of directors is defending the presence of the authority's CEO at a Progressive Conservative fundraising dinner last Friday.

Thomas Soucy says he paid for the $600 ticket used by Dr. France Desrosiers so they could mix and mingle with Premier Blaine Higgs and other Tory politicians in Saint John.

Desrosiers, who administers the health authority, is politically impartial, Soucy said.

"I'm the one who asked France to be there," he said.

Soucy is the CEO of Groupe Westco, a major poultry producer based in Saint-François, and was appointed chair of the Vitalité  board last year.

He said he frequently attends fundraisers for both the PC and Liberal parties as a way to get access to provincial decision-makers.

"This year I figured Vitalité needed to talk to ministers," he said, explaining that he offered Desrosiers one of the tickets he'd normally provide to a Westco employee or shareholder.

Thomas Soucy says he paid for the $600 ticket used by Dr. France Desrosiers. (Bernard Lebel/Radio-Canada)

"We had enough tickets that we could bring her along and I thought it would be a great event for us to be able to meet with all the different ministers and try to tell them what we're doing, what we're pushing in the health care system."

The pair did not attend a reception before the dinner that required a separate $200 ticket.

Soucy became chair of the Vitalité board last June under the Higgs government's new legislation creating completely appointed health authority boards.

The government removed partly elected boards in July 2022 and placed both health authorities, Vitalité and Horizon, under trustees until the new system was in place.

Soucy acknowledged that he and Desrosiers meet with the premier and ministers without having to attend partisan fundraisers like the one last Friday night.

But "every time I have the ability to tell people what changes need to be done, what we need and why we need it, I try to put as many people in front of the government as I can, as often as I can."

Echos of 2012 event

In 2012, the then-CEO of Horizon Health Donn Peters publicly apologized after buying 10 tickets to a PC fundraising dinner, using a Horizon fund for event tickets drawn from parking and cafeteria revenue.

Peters called it a "dumb mistake" at the time and explained he thought the event, billed as "an evening with" Premier David Alward, was sponsored by a business organization.

"When I realized it was a political event, I knew in my own mind that I'd never do that again," he said.

Legislation adopted in 2017 banned corporate and union donations to political parties. Now only individuals can donate, including through the purchase of fundraiser tickets.

Soucy said this situation is also different because Desrosiers didn't buy the ticket herself and he asked her — as board chair and "as her boss" — to take part.

In 2012, the then-CEO of Horizon Health, Donn Peters, publicly apologized after buying 10 tickets to a PC fundraising dinner. (.)

The province's Civil Service Act says civil servants must not engage in political activity "in a manner or to an extent that could result in a perception that the person is not fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of the person's position impartially."

But Treasury Board spokesperson Morgan Bell said the CEOs of the two health authorities are not covered by the act.

Horizon Health said its board chair, Carol Reimer, also attended the dinner, but CEO Margaret Melanson did not attend. "No Horizon funds were used" for Reimer's ticket, said spokesperson Kris McDavid.

Soucy said he has been donating to "all political parties" for more than two decades, and Friday's dinner was in keeping with that.

He said he was not expensing the ticket to Vitalité, adding he doesn't charge the health authority for any expenses related to his work as board chair, which he said he considers pro bono.

Vitalité, Horizon Health and the government are under scrutiny by New Brunswick's auditor-general for its three contracts with private companies who provide travel nurses.

According to the Globe and Mail, the three Vitalité contracts were for a combined maximum of $168 million. The last of the three expires in 2026.

The Department of Health said last month it would "normally" be told about the contracts but had only been made aware of the first one, in 2022.

Poilievre's visit to New Brunswick comes at a time when Premier Blaine Higgs' support is lagging provincially.
Poilievre's visit to New Brunswick comes at a time when Premier Blaine Higgs' support is lagging provincially.

The dinner included speeches from both Premier Blaine Higgs and Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre. (Blaine Higgs/X)

Soucy said he and Desrosiers did not speak to Higgs and his ministers about that issue, focusing instead on primary care and on how to organize provincial laboratory services.

He said most of his employees don't have family doctors, and he lacks one himself.

"In northwest New Brunswickers, there are no doctors. We've been out of doctors for months. … Do I want to push that agenda? Absolutely."

CBC News asked for an interview with Desrosiers about the dinner but Vitalité made Soucy available instead.

The dinner featured federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre as a guest speaker.

"I would rather spend my Friday night with my kids at home than driving four hours to Saint John and back," he said. "But that's the way we have to contribute to political parties."

The Opposition Liberals said they had no comment on Desrosiers's presence at the PC fundraiser.

Soucy said he attended a Liberal fundraising event last September and has another one coming up this week.