Incompetent bureaucrats are responsible for transforming Ornge from a “great” air ambulance service with an “extraordinary” future to a case study in the failure of public administration, former key legal adviser Alfred Apps says.
Speaking about Ornge for the first time on Wednesday, Mr. Apps said bureaucrats do not have the skills and competence to manage public-private partnerships. This does not bode well for financially strapped governments that want to shift more services from bureaucrats to the private sector, he warned.
“Unless and until we get this right,” Mr. Apps said in his opening remarks at an all-party committee hearing, “necessary efforts to offload funding from the taxpayer to the private sector will be met with misunderstanding and confusion and, as such, become politicized, unable to attract investment capital and doomed to failure.”
The hearing is looking into problems at Ornge, which was created in 2005 to manage all aspects of the province’s air ambulance service. It receives $150-million a year in government funding but also raised $300-million from private investors.
The committee also heard from an air ambulance employee turned investigator who uses three aliases, an executive of an Italian helicopter maker who was grilled about allegations of bribery at his company, and an official who questioned whether the government is in fact on the hook for $300-million Ornge owes to bondholders.
Mr. Apps’ assessment of Ornge was sharply at odds with that of the provincial auditor, who in a report last month criticized the Ministry of Health for failing to oversee an out-of-control service that strayed well beyond its mandate.
Mr. Apps did not shed new light on the private, for-profit Ornge entities that he helped create and that are now at the centre of an Ontario Provincial Police probe. But he objected to criticisms that these entities were designed to enrich Ornge insiders, saying they put their interests “dead last.”
He also lashed out at Auditor-General Jim McCarter – who was at the hearing and later told reporters he stands by his work – saying the report was “riddled with errors,” and at Health Minister Deb Matthews, who has said she was misled by Ornge’s former insiders and its legal advisers.
“This, you will understand, is offensive in the extreme,” Mr. Apps said, “particularly for someone of my personal background, my long history of civic management and my hard-earned professional reputation.”
Mr. Apps, former president of the Liberal Party of Canada, recently resigned from the law firm Fasken Martineau and is now at Wildeboer Dellelce. He sought to distance himself from the controversy at Ornge, saying he has no knowledge of wrongdoing, “criminal or otherwise.”
The committee also heard testimony from Trevor Harness, a former dispatcher at Ornge, that struck a bizarre note. Mr. Harness said he was dismissed after he raised concerns about poorly trained paramedics and dispatchers.
“In this business, you don’t have the luxury of pulling off to the nearest cloud to figure things out,” he said.
Mr. Harness said he has set up an undercover intelligence team of 28 to investigate Ornge, including two reporters who do not actually know they are part of it. He said he uses three aliases in his work.
The testimony became much testier when an executive of Agusta Westland, which sold 12 helicopters to Ornge, was questioned. Louis Bartolotta said Agusta also paid $4.8-million to Ornge for two reports on where it could market its helicopters.
Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees asked about Agusta executives who were forced to resign for paying bribes, suggesting the payment to Ornge was similar. “I find your insinuation insulting,” Mr. Bartolotta snapped.
The testimony of Peter Wallace, head of the Ontario Public Service, raised questions about whether taxpayers are legally obligated to repay Ornge’s bondholders. He said they are not and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan reiterated that view.
The prospectus for the bond issue was “clear and unequivocal,” Mr. Duncan told reporters. “Ontario would not be on the hook for those bonds under any circumstances.”
Mr. Klees countered that the bonds received a high credit rating on the understanding that the government would always support an essential service, such as air ambulance. In fact, Ornge is using a portion of its government funding to meet its payment obligations, spokesman James MacDonald said.