The former chief executive of the Bermuda Health Council was accused in court yesterday of “throwing as much unsubstantiated mud” as possible and engaging in a media “bloodbath” after she was fired from the government quango.
Tawanna Wedderburn, who was sacked from the BHeC last December, alleged in court documents earlier this year that she was ousted on the orders of Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health.
She claimed Ms Wilson, along with David Burt, the Premier, and former BHeC chairwoman Alicia Stovell-Washington interfered in the day-to-day running of the health watchdog to push taxpayer-funded payments to Ewart Brown, a former Progressive Labour Party premier.
The allegations were vigorously denied during a one-day Supreme Court hearing yesterday, with Juliana Snelling, lawyer for both the health council and Dr Stovell-Washington, questioning why Ms Wedderburn never filed any “bribery or interference complaints” when she was still being “paid handsomely” her $185,000 salary.
Charles Richardson, representing Mr Burt and Ms Wilson, likened the opening of an affidavit filed with the court by Ms Wedderburn as reading like a work of fiction by novelist Jeffrey Archer.
Ms Wedderburn stated in the court filing: “As I am coming down the long stairwell in Utopia Restaurant on Front Street, my legs are heavy and my hands are shaking. I take out my phone and dial my husband’s number. When he answers, I say ‘Liv, they just fired me’.”
Mr Richardson said: “I have never seen an affidavit that begins like this.”
Later, after hearing arguments from Ms Wedderburn’s lawyer, Eugene Johnston, Mr Richardson said: “I am hearing Jeffrey Archer again. I don’t feel like reading Mr Archer right now.”
Ms Wedderburn is seeking a judicial review of the BHeC’s decision to sack her.
Yesterday’s proceedings before Assistant Justice David Kessaram were to hear arguments on whether her case involved matters of public law, suitable for a judicial review, or private law, where an alternative legal remedy could be sought.
Mr Johnston said the issue was one of public law, since the Minister of Health had a “clear function to play” regarding the appointment and termination of the health council CEO, as set out in section 9 of the Bermuda Health Council Act 2004.
He claimed: “The directive to dismiss was given by the minister.”
Ms Snelling said that was “hotly disputed” by her clients, while Mr Richardson added: “I can’t let that allegation go against my client.”
When Ms Snelling spoke up again, Mr Richardson told her: “I can handle it.”
She continued: “It’s alleged that my client was directed to do it and there is zero evidence of it.”
Mr Johnston said even if the minister didn’t give the directive, the council didn’t go through the proper procedure to terminate Ms Wedderburn’s employment.
Ms Snelling said the health council voted eight to one, with no abstentions, to get rid of Ms Wedderburn on December 6 last year because of dissatisfaction with her leadership.
She had been in the CEO post for three years and had worked at the council in other roles since 2007.
“This is not the chair off on a frolic of her own with a personal animosity towards the applicant ... seven people voted with her,” said Ms Snelling.
She said the chairwoman contacted Ms Wilson after the vote was taken. The next day, the minister and Dr Stovell-Washington spoke again before Ms Wilson e-mailed approval of the decision.
She said Ms Wedderburn was not a public officer, as defined by the Constitution, and not a civil servant.
“Even if she was, if it’s a private law issue ... it will not be subject to judicial review,” argued Ms Snelling.
She said the civil case was a private law matter because it was “in [Ms Wedderburn’s] private interests to be employed by the council”.
“The council was not performing a public duty when it terminated [her employment],” Ms Snelling added.
Ms Wedderburn’s husband, Livingston, wrote a letter to The Royal Gazette in January this year, alleging his wife had been “ambushed and viciously bludgeoned”.
He asked: “Who plotted and led the charge on the night of the long knives and who appointed and/or instructed them?”
Ms Snelling described the plaintiff as acting “so ferociously” after she was sacked.
“The bloodbath, the media, that resulted from the termination ...,” she said, adding that her clients were accused of “horrible things” and materials were made available to the press to “embarrass the council”.
Mr Richardson said: “We haven’t criticised Ms Wedderburn in any way, neither my clients or the council.”
He added: “Any reputational damage has been self-inflicted.”
He said she should have gone to an employment tribunal, rather than seek a judicial review.
“Her dismissal was not something done under the powers of the [Health Council] Act,” he said. “It was contractually based. That remedy may not have been as glorious as the one she is now seeking, but it’s there.
“If Ms Wedderburn was not advised by her counsel to secure her position before the employment tribunal, that’s sad.”
Mr Johnston said listening to lawyers for the respondents was “almost like being caught in a whirlwind of confusion”.
Mr Justice Kessaram reserved judgment to a later date.
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