Oil company turned healthcare company got ‘significant’ COVID testing contract after hiring UCP connected lobbyist whose son works in health ministry

On February 26, 2020 Heavoil Tech Inc. changed its name to Equity Health Services. Just a few months later, on May 10, Equity Health Services announced it had won a “significant contract” for COVID-19 testing capacity with Alberta Health Services (AHS). It was an unusual windfall for a company that had been in the healthcare business for less than a hundred days—and a big win for a lobbyist and conservative insider whose son is a political staffer under the health minister.

Between April 20 and May 1, 2020 Alan Hallman lobbied Minister of Health Tyler Shandro and Alberta Health Services on behalf of Equity Health Services. Hallman is a former campaign manager for Jason Kenney, a long time conservative operative who has been embroiled in a number of minor scandals throughout his career, including being charged with the assault of a security guard at a PC convention in 2017 and being fined for obstructing an Elections Alberta investigation, also in 2017. Alan Hallman’s son, Chad Hallman, is a political staffer in the health ministry. 

Screenshot from Equity Health Services' website. 

On May 8, Equity Health Services announced a strategic partnership with Seegene, a Korean medical diagnostics manufacturer that got approval from Health Canada for its COVID-19 test on April 13, 2020. Seegene has a Canadian subsidiary called Seegene Canada and an office in Toronto. 

AHS confirmed that it had purchased equipment from Equity Health Services as part of their COVID-19 testing program and that AHS does have a short-term contract with the company for loaned equipment. Based on the press releases on Equity Health Services’ website, these materials and equipment likely included assays, instruments, testing kits, reagents and consumables. 

“We are very pleased to assist AHS and our home province of Alberta during this time of crises [sic]. We are committed to work closely with AHS and Alberta Precision Laboratories so Alberta continues to have the highest testing rates in Canada and continues to keep the people of Alberta safe as we open our economy during this unprecedented crises [sic],” said Art Agolli, the founder and CEO of Equity Health Services in a press release posted to their website.

Despite the fact that the AHS contracts are publicly disclosed and the latest update to the AHS contract disclosure database happened on October 22, 2020, the size of the Equity Health Services contract is still unknown. AHS said that those contract details will be posted as part of their next contract upload. When that upload will occur is unclearAHS does not have a policy or schedule on uploads that is available to the public. 

Agolli donated $905 to the UCP in 2018 and has been an energy industry executive and investor for most of the past 20 years according to his Linkedin profiles. He did not respond to inquiries for comment. 

Lobbying incongruities 

The government seems to have realized that the optics of Alan Hallman lobbying a ministry in which his son works were not ideal.

“Upon learning of Alan Hallman’s registration with Equity Health, the Minister proactively wrote to the Ethics Commissioner assuring her that ministerial staffer Chad Hallman had no involvement in the file in question,” said Steve Buick, the press secretary for the minister of health, when contacted by the Progress Report. 

Buick’s statement conflicts with the record. The letter to the Ethics Commissioner, which Buick describes as “proactive,” was written on July 8, 2020. But Hallman had been lobbying the minister from April 20 through May 1.

Assurances were made by Minister Shandro in that letter that Chad Hallman had nothing to do with decisions or discussions around Equity Health Services. There was no mention of when this lobbying occurred in the correspondence.  However, the Ethics Commissioner is also responsible for maintaining the Lobbyist Registry, a public database that displays relevant information about the activities of lobbyists, including the dates of when lobbying occurs. 

The Ethics Commissioner responded on July 9th, 2020, thanking the minister for their letter and requesting that a conflict wall or screen be established to ensure that Chad Hallman could not access any information that is not available to the general public about Equity Health Services or its lobbying interests and efforts. It is unclear from this letter whether the Commissioner was aware that the lobbying in question had already happened two months prior.

Minister Shandro wrote a follow-up letter assuring the commissioner that, “we will store all content related to Equity Health on a system Chad will not have access to. Precautions will also be taken to separate Chad from any meeting, enquiries, correspondence that may be received by his father. This issue has been discussed directly with Chad Hallman and that he understands the importance of avoiding even the appearance of a conflict." 

Tyler Shandro in a press conference on April 24, 2020, around the time he would have been lobbied by Alan Hallman on behalf of Equity Health Services. 

By this point the lobbying and the Equity Health Services contract were already a done deal.

“Setting up a conflict screen or wall two months after the fact is of no use at all,” said Duff Connacher, co-founder of the government accountability organization Democracy Watch.

“It’s interesting that the letter to the commissioner from the Minister doesn’t note that the lobbying has already happened and now we’re contacting you.”

According to the office of the Ethics Commissioner the Alberta Lobbyists Act does not require lobbyists to disclose in their registrations that a family member is a member of the minister’s political staff of the minister they are lobbying. Connacher argues that this is a major loophole.

“There should be a rule that says a lobbyist can not do that. The rule at the federal level is that you can’t do anything to put a public officer holder or political staff member in a conflict of interest or apparent conflict of interest. That would mean that Hallman and his firm couldn’t lobby the health ministry,” said Connacher.  

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