The Ornge scandal just keeps getting uglier. Will it cost Deb Matthews her job?
Question Period at Queen’s Park was temporarily halted after only 24 minutes yesterday, as NDP leader Andrea Horwath and a chorus of angry opposition MPs pounded on their desks demanding the resignation of Health Minister Deb Matthews over the Ornge scandal. While Question Period resumed following distribution of Ritalin and a return to the normal state of glowering incivility, the Ornge cloud won’t be going away anytime soon.
MPPs were responding to the damning report released Wednesday by provincial auditor-general Jim McCarty. While Ornge has been getting a lot of media attention recently, and the known problems are serious enough to have already warranted an OPP investigation, McCarty’s report summarizes the issues in one neat, rage-inducing package.
The problems with Ornge are many and complex, but the most troubling concern the numerous subsidiaries set up by the former executive team (most of the original management left the organization when the province essentially took it over in January of this year).
These companies had financial dealings with their provincially funded parent, often as vendors selling goods or services. It’s unclear who owned these companies or how they profited from dealing with Ornge, since the audit team was not permitted access to records or documents pertaining to these transactions. (Under the Auditor General Act, the AG only has access to companies directly funded bv the province; however, the province has since assigned teams of forensic accountants to investigate Ornge’s interaction with its subsidiaries.)
Stonewalling notwithstanding, some of the nefariousness was more accessible to the auditors. In one case, Ornge bought a headquarters building and sold it to a subsidiary, which then leased it back to its parent at a price that an independent evaluator estimated was 40 per cent above the fair market rate.
There’s also the European manufacturer that sold 12 helicopters to Ornge for US $148 million, and subsequently gave US $2.9 million to Ornge’s charitable foundation. These gentle philanthropists then dropped half a million on two custom motorcycles (to be used to promote the company, not transport patients), one of which is on display in the Ornge HQ lobby and the other of which “may” be with Orange County Choppers in California, where it was featured on the show American Chopper. Bet you never misplaced a quarter of a million dollars worth of motorcycle.
The report is full of entertaining nuggets of malfeasance like the above, and when the Ornge shit really hits the fan (to make an ugly metaphor even more distasteful), somebody’s going to get spattered.
Should it be Matthews? Well, she didn’t start the mess.
The Ornge air ambulance story began back in 2004, when the then–Ontario Air Ambulance Services Co. was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization to co-ordinate air ambulance services in the province. The disgraced management and their hipper, dude-where’s-my-vowel name Ornge followed in 2006, still three years before Mathews took on the healthcare file.
However, while rumblings about trouble had been going around since at least the beginning of 2011, no direct action was taken by the province until the end of last year. It’s likely that more conscientious oversight would have uncovered the problems earlier. And in the wake of E-health, it should have been evident that it’s a bad idea to leave businessfolk and bureaucrats unattended with access to a big keg o’taxpayer cash.
The timing for a Matthews departure would be awful. The Liberal government will unveil their much-anticipated “austerity” budget on Tuesday, and while healthcare will be relatively protected, considerable fiscal agility will be needed to keep the province in band-aids in these deficit-cutting times. Matthews is competent; it would be a mistake to bring in a new minister during a period of transition.
And in Matthew’s defence, the $130 million spent annually on Ornge is less than 3 per cent of Ontario’s monster healthcare budget. As minister, she can’t be expected to micromanage every aspect of her portfolio.
But ultimately, she owns it, and unless she finds a disposable underling ready to jump or be pushed into the rotor blades, Matthews will need to explain very soon why this happened, and how it will be prevented in the future. Because otherwise, it will take her down.