Frank Klees

Frankly Speaking

Article by Frank Klees, MPP
March 13, 2012

 

Behind the Scenes: The Ornge Scandal

 

Criminal investigations, kick-backs, forensic audits, falsified credentials, back room deals and missing millions.....

These are themes we would expect to be headlining the latest movie offerings, but for the past three weeks, they were the theme of Question Period at the legislature. This column takes you behind the scenes at Queen's Park and will give you some insight into why this issue has commanded such sustained debate and media attention.

The First Whistleblower ......

“Millions of taxpayers' dollars intended for air ambulance services are being siphoned off into for-profit companies, standards of care are being compromised and patients and crews are being put at risk."

This anonymous message was sent to me in late January, 2011 by an Ornge employee, who identified himself as a "dedicated and concerned paramedic who can no longer stay quiet". I had to decide whether to write him off as a disgruntled employee or take his message seriously. I did the latter, and so began two months of research that would lead to my first series of questions in the legislature on what I was convinced was a gross abuse of tax dollars and a calculated, self-serving  scheme that was enriching a small band of political insiders while undermining the quality and integrity of our air ambulance service.

April, 2011: Given the stiff competition for "air time" during Question Period, I have to credit our Caucus for deferring three separate times for me to raise this issue during the month of April. The Hansard Record shows that neither the Minister of Health, the Minister of Finance nor the Premier were in the least bit interested. Their response to my warnings, was to insist that all was well, and rather than investigate, defended the indefensible.

Ornge Threatens Legal Action......

Within days of my questions in the legislature, I received a lengthy letter from Ornge threatening me with legal action and demanding a retraction and apology. Needless to say, I offered neither, because I knew that I had hard evidence of what I firmly believed would prove to be one of the biggest scandals in the history of our province. (I later learned that the letter was written by one Alf Apps, who was serving as the President of the Liberal Party of Canada at the time.)

Interesting that subsequently, Paul Bliss, CTV's Queen's Park correspondent, with whom I had taped a three-part interview on Ornge, received a similar threatening letter after the first interview was aired. CTV decided to pull the plug on Paul's story and there would be no further Ornge stories on CTV until the Toronto Star broke the story wide open. Click here to video link of interview

Meeting With the Auditor General....

My questions in the legislature triggered a deluge of calls, emails and letters from current and former employees, suppliers and stakeholders of Ornge. All wanted to provide information on what they knew about waste of tax dollars, circumvention of competitive bidding for contracts, mismanagement and erosion of standards of patient care.

As we were heading into an election, and there would be no further opportunities to raise the issue in the legislature, I arranged to meet with the Auditor General and conveyed to him my Ornge file which consisted of hundreds of emails and records of meetings with Ornge insiders. I was assured that given the apparent integrity of the documented evidence, the Auditor General would be expanding the scope of his audit and would be elevating Ornge to a Special Audit Report.

That Special Report will be tabled with the legislature within days, and I predict will be a condemnation of the government's failure to exercise proper oversight of our air ambulance services.  

Peeling the Ornge .......

To the credit of the many dedicated and principled employees at Ornge, they were desperate to expose what they described as a self-serving "culture of greed" that was undermining their ability to deliver the emergency health services to which they had dedicated themselves.

While the Ornge story was largely ignored by the media, Kevin Donovan of the Star began writing a series of articles, based on information provided by the same whistle-blowers who were contacting me.

Day in and day out, the layers started to get peeled back. More information about alleged kick-backs on multi-million dollar aircraft deals, under-staffing of paramedics and pilots that resulted in delays that may well have contributed to patient deaths and more. Investigations are underway.

The Call for a Select Committee of the Legislature

For the past three weeks, the Minister of Health has repeatedly denied responsibility for the Ornge scandal. Even though she was forced to call in the OPP to conduct a criminal investigation into financial irregularities, the entire Board of Directors was fired along with the CEO and other Senior Executives, she prefers to blame her former colleague for a scandal over which she has presided for the past four years.

It's that attitude of denial that prompted us to invite the NDP to join us in a joint press conference to call for the establishment of a Select Committee of the Legislature to investigate Ornge. I hosted that press conference with MPP France Gelinas of the NDP and tabled a Motion this past Thursday that calls on the legislature to not only establish the Committee, but also to provide Whistle-blower protection to any employees who want to testify. The Motion will be debated on Tuesday, March 20. We expect to win that vote and get on with holding the government accountable for its lack of oversight on this critical issue.

For those who are interested, videos of my questions on this issue in the legislature and news stories can be accessed on my website at www.frank-klees.on.ca . And as always, I look forward to your comments and advice.