Tanya Talaga/Torstar News Service
George Smitherman regrets he was unable to foresee problems at ORNGE but points the finger squarely at health ministry bureaucrats for failing to notice the brewing storm at the air ambulance service.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Smitherman told reporters after speaking to the all-party Legislative committee probing the ORNGE scandal. As the Liberal health minister from 2003 to 2008, Smitherman helped create ORNGE.
“For the rest of my life I will regret that.”
The second day of hearings was marred with what the opposition called legal delay tactics thrown up to protect Premier Dalton McGuinty’s office. The so-called tactics didn’t work; both Smitherman and McGuinty’s Principal Secretary Jamison Steeve took the stand on Wednesday.
Smitherman and Steeve, who at one point served as Smitherman’s chief of staff, conceded the government dropped the ball on the ORNGE file.
“I think, we as a government, could have done better all along the way in making sure there was accountability at ORNGE to the government,” Steeve said.
Earlier this month, Auditor General Jim McCarter issued a searing indictment of the government’s lack of oversight at ORNGE. He found Ontario threw $50 million in funding increases at the service over five years but never checked how public money was being spent.
Smitherman, who gained the reputation of “Furious George” for his bulldog tendencies in the House and ability to get things done, said he is personally disappointed he couldn’t tell former CEO Dr. Chris Mazza and the board of directors “would seek to leverage public benefit for personal gain.”
But bureaucrats at the health ministry — a $47 billion organization with thousands of employees — should have known better, continued Smitherman.
“I really wonder if the ministry did their job,” he said, adding it is likely the warning signals occurred before Health Minister Deb Matthews took over the position in 2009 from David Caplan.
Health ministers and deputies come and go, said Smitherman, but it is the bureaucrats who are there “for ever and ever.”
Smitherman told the committee when he was health minister, Mazza was on the sunshine salary disclosure list and he earned only $298,000 a year — not the $1.4 million revealed by the Star.
“If I was the minister, there was no way in hell Chris Mazza would make $1.4 million and that they’d cook up some scheme they’d give Ontario back 3 per cent of earnings or whatever the heck that was about,” he said referring to the promise ORNGE could bring revenue back to the province.
He called the hotly contested ORNGE performance agreement a “scapegoat” and that it was a document with “quite a bit of power for the ministry to bring an entity back to heel.”
Yet Matthews has continually thrown Smitherman “under the bus” for what happened at ORNGE, said NDP MPP France Gélinas, a committee member. “She blamed him for not putting in an accountability agreement that wasn’t robust enough,” she said.
Earlier in the day, the ORNGE hearings ground to a halt over legal disputes such as whether a government lawyer should be present due to the Ontario Provincial Police probe.
Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees called the delay an “obstruction” and “unacceptable.”
Klees, also a committee member, noted during the federal Gomery Commission a parallel police and Parliamentary investigation occurred at the same time. Led by Justice John Gomery, the commission investigated the sponsorship scandal.
However, Liberal MPP David Zimmer said when there is the “possibility and probability of complex litigation” this is “no time for this committee to be flying by the seat of its pants.”
The committee may hold extra days of sitting next week during the Easter break.
This article was originally published in the Toronto Star (www.thestar.com), which is credited for breaking the original story on the mismanagement of Ornge while continuing to provide comprehensive reporting on the ongoing issues.