Sex, money and helicopters: Ornge probe wraps for summer
By Tanya Talaga Toronto Star
Aug. 8, 2012, Toronto - The inner workings of Ontario’s provincial air ambulance service could be mistaken for a new television melodrama.
By Tanya Talaga Toronto Star
After listening to nearly 60 witnesses filling 600 pages of testimony on everything from sex and lavish travel to nepotism and a web of now bankrupt for-profit companies, high salaries and questionable contracts, the provincial committee investigating the ORNGE scandal is now recessed until the fall.
That means the report and list of recommendations on how to rescue and rebrand ORNGE isn’t anywhere near completion or release.
All committees of the Legislature are dissolved over the summer, explained New Democratic MPP France Gelinas. On Sept. 10, new bodies will be put together. But two by-elections this fall — one in Kitchener-Waterloo and the other in Vaughan — threatens to delay the entire process.
“By the time we get this back together, there is nothing to say the same people will be appointed to the same committee, so there is chance for a huge delay,” Gelinas said.
But all is not lost, said Liberal MPP Liz Sandals. A researcher is putting together an outline and table of contents of the “report we’ll eventually work on” and a summary of the testimony,” Sandals said.
Peeling back the layers at ORNGE has been a daunting task, one that was spearheaded by the Toronto Star in its ongoing investigation that produced 51 front page articles.
In the Legislature, Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees doggedly asked questions about ORNGE before it was on anyone’s radar.
Auditor General Jim McCarter weighed in, discovering provincial funding of ORNGE — now at $150 million annually — has also risen 20 per cent over the past few years while the number of patients transported has fallen by 6 per cent.
McCarter blamed the government for missing a number of signals that problems were brewing and for weak performance agreements that did not require detailed breakdowns of results from the complex web or ORNGE subsidiaries.
Ontario Integrity Commissioner Lynn Morrison told the hearing Thursday that Alfred Apps, former Fasken Martineau lawyer, should have registered as a lobbyist at Queen’s Park. His role in trying to set up meetings with government staffers was committee fodder for days.
Apps, former president of the Liberal Party of Canada, was Fasken’s key corporate adviser at ORNGE. Fasken billed 22,000 hours on the ORNGE file at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $10 million.
What has been discovered at ORNGE has stunned even the most cynical political observer.
Founder Dr. Chris Mazza was described as a “passionate visionary” but one with a quick temper and domineering attitude.
Health Minister Deb Matthews testified Mazza refused to meet with her, that he stonewalled the auditor as he tried to investigate, that he refused to disclose his salary and that he “manipulated patient transfer numbers” to her ministry.
It took the threats of two legislative warrants to finally bring Mazza before the opposition dominated probe. Doctors had said he was too fragile to testify.
When he did appear on July 18 he alternated between quiet whimpers, irritated defiance, and frequently blamed his memory loss on events due to the 2006 death of his son and an unidentified “sickness.”
Gelinas and the rest of the probe was “absolutely astounded” on Wednesday after listening to the latest round of revelations from ex-board chair Rainer Beltzner — a Porsche-race car driving chartered accountant who pocketed $200,000 in compensation.
He testified Wednesday that Mazza knew full well his compensation was at least $1.4 million last year — contrary to Mazza’s testimony that he didn’t have a hand in deciding his salary — and that the physician had a private company that had a contract with ORNGE.
When Beltzner found this out he also discovered, “Dr. Mazza was not, in fact, providing any of the services, nor were they required.” Further more, payments were demanded by Mazza and they were made without invoices, Beltzner testified.
Perhaps most surprising was Beltzner’s admission he knew ORNGE paid millions in unnecessary fees to Italian helicopter firm AgustaWestland, Klees said.
“He saw a document that confirmed it was not necessary for ORNGE to pay the additional $6.7 million for the upgrades to Agusta but it was paid, nevertheless,” Klees told the Star.
ORNGE bought 12 helicopters from AgustaWestland for $144 million in 2008 and shortly afterwards, ORNGE received a $4.7 million marketing services contract with another $2 million contract in the works, the Star has previously reported. The Ontario Provincial Police is investigating the deal.
Beltzner’s daughter, Carrie Anne Brunet worked on the marketing contract at ORNGE with Kelly Long. However Beltzner testified he didn’t know his daughter was working on the agreement.
Long, a former water-ski instructor and a York University graduate, was Mazza’s girlfriend. How she became employed at ORNGE and quickly rose through the ranks to become an associate vice-president occupied hours of committee time.
Throughout it all, McGuinty has defended Matthews. On Thursday while in Kitchener, the premier called on politicians from all parties to move forward legislation, “that gives the government additional oversight on these organizations.”
McGuinty also acknowledged McCarter was correct. “The auditor said we failed to provide the necessary oversight over ORNGE. I accept that. We have learned our lesson there.”