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Police launch criminal probe into Ontario air-ambulance service

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

Police launched a criminal probe into Ontario's air ambulance service on Thursday.

The Ontario Provincial Police were asked by the Ministry of Health to investigate financial transactions involving Ornge and a series of private, for-profit entities it created, according to sources familiar with the probe.

The Ministry called in the OPP as a result of the findings made by a team of forensic auditors from the Ministry of Finance, who have spent the past few weeks poring over Ornge's financial records. The sources said two transactions triggered the criminal probe: $1.2-million in loans made to former chief executive officer Chris Mazza and a $6.7-million payment Italian aviation company AgustaWestland channelled back to Ornge, as part of the air ambulance's purchase of 12 helicopters for $148-million.

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"I can tell us that I'm very disappointed and I'm very troubled," Health Minister Deb Matthews said in an interview. "When people are charged with the responsibility of delivering care to the people of Ontario, and they choose to forget who it is they're there to serve, I think everyone's feeling pretty let down."

OPP Acting Inspector Cathy Bell said on Thursday that the force's criminal investigations branch will conduct a "thorough" investigation into "possible criminal activities." She declined to comment further. Ornge interim chief executive officer Ron McKerlie also declined to comment, beyond confirming that the police are now involved.

Even as news broke of the police probe, it appeared to be business as usual at Ornge's headquarters in Mississauga. There were no police officers in sight, couriers continued to make deliveries and staff came and went through the afternoon. Most employees would not talk, but one said there was nothing unusual happening inside.

The probe caps a number of dramatic events at Ornge, which is responsible for all aspects of the province's air ambulance service. Ornge is not the first scandal under Premier Dalton McGuinty's watch, but it eclipses all the others, including eHealth and the provincial lottery corporation, because so much more than just money is at stake.

Ornge handles more than 20,000 patients a year, including the critically ill and injured. It is facing questions in a separate probe about whether patient care was compromised. The Health Ministry's Emergency Health Services Branch is investigating 13 cases, including three deaths.

Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees criticized Ms. Matthews for her "lack of oversight" over Ornge. Mr. Klees began sounding the alarm about Ornge's financial dealings 10 months ago, but questions he raised in the provincial legislature fell on deaf ears.

"Because of the lack of action on the part of the minister, we have no idea how many lives were put at risk," Mr. Klees told reporters on Thursday. "I believe at the very least, given the track record of this minister, she should step aside until the probe is complete."

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Ms. Matthews said she is not going anywhere. "I've got lots of work to do," she said.

Plenty of others associated with Ornge have lost key positions in recent weeks. Ornge chairman Rainer Beltzner resigned earlier this month along with other directors when Ms. Matthews appointed a new board.

Mr. Beltzner is also no longer chairman of the Board of Governors of Humber College. Andrew Leopold, a spokesman at Humber, confirmed to The Globe and Mail that Mr. Beltzner resigned last Friday.

Earlier on Thursday, it was announced that Ornge's chief operating officer had left the service, the latest in a string of departures from the executive suite.

In an internal memo to employees, Mr. McKerlie confirmed that Tom Lepine is no longer with Ornge, effective immediately.

"I want to personally thank Tom for his years of service and dedication to the air ambulance program," Mr. McKerlie said in the memo. "Tom was personally committed to this organization, our patients and the people of Ontario."

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Mr. Lepine had been at Ornge since its inception in 2006, when the Ontario government turned over responsibility for managing all aspects of the province's air ambulance service. Mr. Lepine has more than 20 years of experience as a paramedic and educator, according to his biography on Ornge's website. He took on progressively senior management roles at Ornge, most recently overseeing its day-to-day operations.

Mr. McKerlie, a senior bureaucrat, has presided over the departure of several executives since he was parachuted into Ornge four weeks ago by Health Minister Deb Matthews.

Ornge founder Mr. Mazza was terminated two weeks ago when a trustee in bankruptcy was appointed for a private for-profit consulting company created by the air ambulance. The bankruptcy gave Ornge the legal authority to terminate Dr. Mazza's employment as chief executive officer without severance. Dr. Mazza had been on medical leave since December, and remained on the payroll of one of the consulting companies, Ornge Global GP Inc., earning $1.4-million a year.

Ornge is in the process of trying tor recover $1.2-million in loans to Dr. Mazza.

Maria Renzella, the only other employee of Ornge Global GP, was terminated as chief operating officer of Ornge Global Corporate Services at the same time as Dr. Mazza. She was also removed without severance pay after going on medical leave last week.

With a report from Oliver Moore

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