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Criminal probe of Ornge needed, Ontario opposition says

Auditors from Ontario's Ministry of Finance are probing all aspects of the Ornge air-ambulance service.

John Hanley for The Globe and Mail/john hanley The Globe and Mail

Opposition members at the Ontario Legislature are calling on the government to launch a criminal probe into the province's embattled air ambulance service.

A team of 32 forensic auditors from the Finance Ministry is already poring over Ornge's financial records to determine whether taxpayers' money was used for private gain.

The auditors also want to know why an organization that uses airplanes and helicopters to transport critically ill or injured patients owned two motorcycles and a speedboat. Ornge is in the process of auctioning off one of the motorcycles. The other is a display model that once adorned the lobby of Ornge's headquarters in Mississauga.

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Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees said the Ontario Provincial Police also need to investigate whether taxpayers were defrauded. There are enough questions about the private, for-profit companies created by Ornge to warrant such a probe, he said.

"You cannot ignore what's going on, and you can't ignore ... that the police are being left on the sidelines here," Mr. Klees told The Globe and Mail on Monday.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Deb Matthews refused to comment on whether they have plans to call in the OPP.

"The forensic auditors continue to do their work and we look forward to their report," Zita Astravas said in an e-mail response to The Globe.

Ornge was created in 2006 when the McGuinty government decided to get out of the business itself of managing the province's air ambulance service. Ornge receives $150-million a year from the Ontario government to co-ordinate all aspects of the province's air-ambulance services.

Chris Mazza, the founder and former chief executive officer of Ornge, expanded the service well beyond its traditional roots.

As well as managing contracts with private-sector aviation companies, which provided pilots and paramedics for helicopters or airplanes to transport patients, Ornge began competing directly against these carriers.

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Dr. Mazza set up private, for-profit companies with the goal of leveraging the publicly-funded air carrier into a world class medical transport business, one he could market for profit to other countries. The plan was to keep 97 per cent of the revenue for the Ornge insiders, leaving just 3 per cent for the province.

Ornge spent $148-million buying a new fleet of helicopters and is in the process of taking over a lucrative contract to operate the province's air ambulance helicopter service. Canadian Helicopters, the country's largest helicopter company, had held the contract since Ontario's air ambulance service began in 1977. The contract generated annual revenue of $30-million for Canadian Helicopters.

Dr. Mazza's employment was terminated on Feb. 2. Ornge is taking legal action to recover $1.2-million in loans made to him, including a housing loan of $500,000.

Mr. Klees initially raised questions about Ornge 10 months ago. In the legislature last April, Mr. Klees said the for-profit entities are doing business under the same roof as the publicly funded air carrier. He said there was no disclosure on whether public money was being used to subsidize the for-profit entities.

Ms. Matthews dismissed his questions, saying patient care has improved since Ornge took over the service.

"We need to be there to get [patients]the care they need as quickly as possible," Ms. Matthews said during Question Period last April. "I would hope the member is not actually suggesting that we cut air ambulance."

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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