Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews says she was misled on whether Ornge was co-mingling taxpayers’ dollars with its private ventures by the air ambulance agency’s chairman and legal team.
Ms. Matthews singled out the former Ornge chairman, Rainer Beltzner, and a team of lawyers, saying they led her staff to believe in a meeting a year ago that no public dollars were being used for their private endeavours.
“We had assurances in writing and verbally that there was no intermingling of for-profit and not-for-profit,” Ms. Matthews said at a news conference on Friday, one day after Ontario Provincial Police launched a probe into the agency’s for-profit operations. “That was very clearly stated, and I was told personally by the then chair of Ornge that that was not happening, and it certainly appears that it was.”
In an interview before the news conference, Ms. Matthews said Ornge’s lawyers also told her there was no “intermingling of private and public funds.”
Asked if by “lawyers” she meant Alfred Apps, who at the time was a lawyer at Ornge’s lead law firm, Fasken Martineau, Ms. Matthews responded, “Yes. ... It was the team of lawyers.”
Mr. Apps, former president of the Liberal Party of Canada and a key legal adviser to Ornge, helped executives of the air ambulance service navigate the highest levels of government at the provincial legislature.
Mr. Apps prepared speaking notes to coach Ornge founder and then-CEO Chris Mazza through a crucial meeting in 2007 with George Smitherman, health minister at the time, on the air ambulance’s expansion plans, documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show. Mr. Apps also assured officials in Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government, including Ms. Matthews, that Ornge would exploit new revenue sources without compromising the performance of the air ambulance’s core operations.
The for-profit ventures are now at the centre of a criminal probe, with the OPP investigating whether Ornge insiders used money earmarked for the publicly funded air ambulance service for the private ventures.
Mr. Apps recently left Fasken Martineau and could not be reached for comment on Friday. A spokesman for Faskens declined to comment, saying the firm cannot discuss client affairs.
Mr. Beltzner said he believed what he told Ms. Matthews was true.
“I relied on assurances and information provided to me by Ornge, as I reasonably believed I could do,” he said in an email to The Globe. “If there were inaccuracies in the information I provided to the minister, that was the unintentional result of my reliance on inaccurate information from Ornge.”
Mr. Beltzner stepped down as chairman when Ms. Matthews replaced the entire board this month.
Sources said Mr. Apps played a key role in helping Ornge shape its message for government officials. In the talking points he prepared, he advised Dr. Mazza to focus on plans to buy aircraft and look for new sources of revenue. “My advice: Do not discuss “International” - premature (i.e. we don’t have viable business plan,” he said, according to documents.
Sources said Mr. Apps also helped to draft a 34-page stakeholder briefing dated Jan. 19, 2011, and addressed to Ms. Matthews. The document outlines Ornge’s plans to supplement the $150-million in annual funding it receives from the province by pursuing new business ventures.
“Ornge is functionally organized to operate as an independent business, free of ‘political’ interference,” the document says.
Too independently, Ms. Matthews acknowledged on Friday at the news conference, where she unveiled steps to put Ornge on a shorter leash.
She must now approve any changes in Ornge’s corporate structure, including asset sales. As well, the government plans to introduce legislation that would give it the power to appoint investigators or a supervisor for Ornge.
Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees, who first raised questions about Ornge 10 months ago, said the changes do not go far enough.
“She believes she can apply some Band Aid solutions to a very broken organization,” he told reporters.
With a report from Sandra Martin