BUSINESS

Ornge Investigation: Ruth Hawkins, Senior Bureaucrat, Accused Of Developing Amnesia About Red Flags

06/26/2012 06:37 EDT | Updated 08/26/2012 05:12 EDT
CP/The Globe and Mail
TORONTO - A senior health bureaucrat was accused Tuesday of developing "amnesia" about the numerous red flags that were raised over the years about the province's troubled air ambulance service.

Ornge is currently under a criminal probe for financial irregularities amid allegations of questionable business practices, high executive salaries and whether public money may have been used for private gain.

Ruth Hawkins, an assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Health, was grilled by a legislative committee looking into Ornge about why the government didn't do something sooner to rein in the rogue agency.

Opposition members say there were at least three warning signs in 2008 that should have alerted the ministry that something was wrong at Ornge.

That year, Ornge accountant Keith Walmsley blew the whistle and told the government that executives were collecting exorbitant salaries and misusing taxpayer dollars.

Six weeks later, Hawkins wrote back to Walmsley, saying that the ministry had investigated his allegations and that the issues were addressed.

Jacob Blum, a former Ornge executive who quit in 2008, said he met with Hawkins that year to voice his concerns about Ornge buying a lakefront property and a $43,000 speedboat.

"Ms. Hawkins stated that if this information was in fact true, she was very disappointed about it," he told the committee in May.

But Hawkins told the committee Tuesday that while she recalled meeting Blum once in July 2008, she couldn't remember what they talked about.

"I actually don't recall the content of that discussion," Hawkins testified.

Hawkins also said she was unaware that Ornge — which received about $150 million a year from the province — gave its charitable organization $8.4 million that year, even though the information was contained in a ministry report.

She said Ornge did request to transfer $5 million from its land ambulance program to its air ambulance program. The ministry granted the request and asked Ornge to confirm that it would use the money for that purpose.

But her inability to remember key details appeared to frustrate both the New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives.

"(Blum) tells you about wrongdoing at Ornge, you develop amnesia and can't remember a word that this man has told to you," said NDP health critic France Gelinas.

"Everybody was telling you that (Ornge) was just fine, yet you were getting credible people telling you the exact opposite," she added. "Try to make sense of that for me, because right now, I fail to see it."

Hawkins is yet another bureaucrat pointing the finger elsewhere, Progressive Conservative Frank Klees said after the hearing.

"There's something in the water at the Ministry of Health that's causing selective memory lapse, and it's especially affecting the senior bureaucrats who had oversight responsibility for Ornge," he said in a statement.

Hawkins defended her work, saying when matters came to the ministry's attention, they reviewed them quickly and made sure they got the "necessary assurances from very credible individuals."

"Does the fact that you didn't know (ousted CEO Chris) Mazza's salary ... why is it that this didn't even raise a red flag for you?" Gelinas said.

Hawkins said the ministry did ask about Mazza's salary, but were told that it was beyond their reach because he was now working for Ornge Peel, one of the for-profit entities he set up.

It was later reported that Mazza's compensation reached $1.4 million.

The committee also heard from Jim Feeley, Ornge's vice-president of aviation, who said 12 pilots have left Ornge since January.

Six stayed with CHL and six "chose just not to come with us, and I don't know why," he said.

Rick Brady, manager of investigations at the ministry's emergency health services branch, was also called to testify.

The branch has probed 145 incidents related to Ornge since 2007, including the deaths of 26 patients.

The incidents under investigation included delays in dispatching air ambulances, paramedics unable to perform CPR due to cramped conditions in the helicopters, staff shortages and paramedics running out of supplies like oxygen and medication.

Forty of those incidents — five of which involved the death of a patient — were opened so far this year, after the government installed new leadership at Ornge.

Brady said he noticed in 2007 that the branch was doing more air ambulance investigations than it had in the past, and reported it to his superiors.

But things didn't get any better despite assurances that the ministry was talking to Ornge and "changes were coming," he said.