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Chris Mazza, former CEO of Ornge. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Chris Mazza, former CEO of Ornge. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

EXCLUSIVE

The former CEO of Ornge breaks his silence Add to ...

If it had not been for a talk years ago with his adolescent son, Christopher Mazza might not have become the mystery man at the centre of Ontario’s biggest political scandal of 2012 – the alleged mismanagement of the province’s Ornge medical-transport service.

Dr. Mazza, the former chief executive officer of Ornge, has been accused of corruption, nepotism, extravagance, featherbedding, bullying and sexual harassment. Eventually fired, he entered Guelph’s Homewood Health Centre, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. During his worst period, he spent several weeks living in a closet.

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Although he testified last summer before the Ontario public accounts committee, Dr. Mazza has granted no face-to-face interviews – until recently, when he spoke exclusively, for four hours, to The Globe and Mail.

“I had actually wanted to quit after SARS,” he said, referring the 2003 pandemic that took 44 lives in Toronto and 774 worldwide. “It was horrific. I couldn’t figure out why nobody would co-operate with each other, would not make intensive-care-unit beds available or provide nurses. That’s the story never told about SARS: Everyone circled the wagons.”

But then, he remembered, his “weirdly mature” son Joshua persuaded him to stay. “It seems strange to have even had that kind of conversation with a 12-year-old, but he was that kind of kid,” he said.

“And then Josh died.”

Joshua Mazza was a careful and skilled freestyle skier who had trained with the race team at Markdale, Ont.’s Beaver Valley Ski Club. There was a new tabletop jump he wanted to try. So just after 9 a.m. on March 5, 2006, he headed for the hills. A few minutes later, on the chairlift, Dr. Mazza spotted a chalkboard message asking Josh’s parents to report to the ski-patrol hut.

That is where he and his then-wife, Kathy, received the impossible news: The slope to the tabletop jump was too steep, and Josh had taken off too soon, gaining too much lift. His head injuries were catastrophic. He was dead on impact. He was 14.

Chris Mazza, it is fair to say, has not been the same since.

At home, his marriage eventually ended in divorce (he has two other children, now in their teens). At work, he fixated, he said, on gaps in the health system and mistakes that could cost someone else a loved one. “I became obsessed with perfection. I believed we had to drive harder, even harder than the private sector, because we had a higher motive. Was I hard on people? Probably. Too hard? Maybe. They said I went too fast. But nobody told me to slow down.”

The loss of his son was a recurring motif in the conversation, but the wear of the scandal was also clear. At times, he showed flashes of the dynamic executive he had been – confident and in command of facts and concepts. At other moments, he stuttered, his voice choked with emotion. His handshake was firm, but he looked grey and drawn, his right knee jumping as he spoke.

Dr. Mazza mounted a vigorous defence of the hybrid public/private-enterprise model that he created at Ornge. He tried to refute each of the allegations: that Ornge had kept government regulators in the dark; that he was guilty of nepotism in hiring and promoting Kelly Long, a woman who, after his divorce, became his girlfriend (they are now engaged); that he had set up a Byzantine tapestry of for-profit ancillary businesses, to line his own and other private investors’ pockets; that Ornge’s $144-million purchase of 10 AgustaWestland (AW) helicopters was misguided; and that he orchestrated a multimillion-dollar kickback on the deal.

Some of these claims are now the subject of an Ontario Provincial Police probe.

“I’m not perfect,” Dr. Mazza conceded. “Far from it. … But I became collateral damage in a crossfire. Do I feel betrayed? I do. But I’ve learned that people remember things differently when they feel threatened.”

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