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George Smitherman is the first former or current senior government official to acknowledge responsibility for the scandal swirling around Ornge. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
George Smitherman is the first former or current senior government official to acknowledge responsibility for the scandal swirling around Ornge. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Air ambulance probe

Not aware of red flags at Ornge, Smitherman says Add to ...

A contrite George Smitherman says he takes responsibility for not realizing that the former leaders of Ornge had “ulterior motives” and were planning to hatch a scheme to use the publicly funded air ambulance service for their personal gain.

“I didn’t see it coming,” Mr. Smitherman, Ontario’s former health minister, told an all-party committee of the provincial legislature on Wednesday. “For the rest of my life, I’ll regret that.”

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Mr. Smitherman was the first former or current senior government official to acknowledge responsibility for the scandal swirling around Ornge over a web of private entities that enriched former senior officers and left taxpayers on the hook for debts totalling $300-million.

Ornge’s former insiders created the bulk of the private, for-profit companies well after Mr. Smitherman was promoted from health to deputy premier in charge of infrastructure and energy in 2008. Although he resigned from cabinet the next year to run unsuccessfully for mayor of Toronto, his name has been linked to the scandal because he signed a performance agreement in 2005 handing Ornge responsibility for all aspects of Ontario’s air ambulance service.

Mr. Smitherman said he was not aware of any red flags at Ornge during his tenure as health minister. He accused bureaucrats in the Health Ministry of dropping the ball, saying it was their job to alert him or his successors as health minister that Ornge had “gone awry.”

“At what point did they decide that they were dealing with what I would describe as a rogue entity?” Mr. Smitherman told the committee. “And what steps did they take at that time to bring it to heel?”

The fact that the salary of former Ornge chief executive officer Chris Mazza was not disclosed in the annual list for public sector employees who earn more than $100,000, he said, is “particularly egregious” and should have sent a “warning signal across somebody’s desk.”

Mr. Smitherman defended Health Minister Deb Matthews, saying she is in charge of a huge ministry and relies on her bureaucrats to keep her informed. “You can only act if you have the information,” he told the committee.

At the same time, however, Mr. Smitherman tacitly criticized Ms. Matthews for her oft-repeated claim that the performance agreement was weak and did not give her the tools to intervene. The agreement itself, he said, contains more than enough powers. As well, he said, the government controls the purse strings at Ornge, giving it added clout over the organization.

Deputy health minister Saäd Rafi testified last week that officials at Ornge misled his staff.

“I can assure you that probing questions were asked,” Mr. Rafi told the committee.

Follow on Twitter: @kahowlett

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