05/02/2012 11:10 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Hiring of ousted CEO's girlfriend under scrutiny at Ornge committee

TORONTO - The girlfriend of ousted Ornge CEO Chris Mazza has defended her quick climb up the corporate ladder at Ontario's troubled air ambulance service, which saw her rise from communications officer to junior executive in five years.

Kelly Long, who met Mazza at a sports club where she worked as a water-ski instructor, dismissed "insinuations" that her career boost at Ornge had anything to do with her relationship with its chief executive.

"I feel that I deserved the promotions that I received," she said Wednesday before a legislative committee investigating Ornge.

"I know that people are insinuating — or the media is insinuating — that I rose quickly because of my relationship or my friendship with Dr. Mazza. I think that's unfair."

Long said she has a university degree in sociology and taught English as a second language before switching gears to public affairs. She also had the time to commit herself "fully" to her career, she said.

That career began with a push from Mazza, who convinced a consultant who worked for Ornge to hire her, the committee heard.

Kelly Mitchell, a prominent Conservative and founder of Pathway Group, acknowledged that Mazza asked him to consider Long for a job at his firm.

But Mitchell said he didn't feel pressured into it, even though Ornge was one of Pathway's biggest clients, paying the firm about $400,000 over seven years.

Nor did Mazza pressure him to give Long more responsibilities at Pathway after he hired her in January 2006. Long earned $58,000 a year at her administrative job at Pathway, which Mazza paid through Ornge, the committee heard.

"Even during the time that she worked for Pathway Group, I couldn't say anything negative about her work," Mitchell told the committee.

Long was later seconded to Ornge in September 2006 and became a permanent staff member in December. She started out as a communications officer and was promoted to director of her department within three years.

Last year, Long moved to Ornge Global — one of the organization's for-profit subsidiaries — to become associate vice-president of sales and marketing, earning $120,000 a year.

She was terminated in late December, along with Mazza, who was making $1.4 million a year.

Long defended the work she did at Ornge, including her role in a controversial $4.7-million marketing services agreement that Ornge struck with AgustaWestland after the helicopter firm sold 12 choppers to Ornge.

Both Ontario's auditor general and Mazza's replacement, Ron McKerlie, say they found no evidence that the work performed reflected the amount of money it was paid.

AgustaWestland has refuted suggestions that the deal amounted to a kickback to Ornge, which is under a criminal investigation for "financial irregularities."

Long said ten people — six employees and four MBA intern students — worked for 2 1/2 years on the project, using academic papers, journals and databases to draft a report that identified markets where Agusta could increase its sales.

She took over responsibility for the project when Luis Navas, chief operating officer of now-bankrupt Ornge Global who also sat on Ornge's board of directors, went on medical leave last fall, Long said.

"I think what's important is the expertise that we offered Agusta," she told the committee.

Both Long and Mitchell, who sat on Ornge's board of directors and the boards of some of its for-profit entities, said they had no clue that Mazza was collecting such a large salary.

Long said she and Mazza didn't talk about work. Mitchell said he only found out how much Mazza was paid after the scandal at Ornge became front-page news late last year.

Former Ornge chairman Rainer Beltzner told board members during an emergency conference call in mid-December that Mazza was in "very rough shape" mentally because of the "negative" stories in the media and had to be replaced, Mitchell said.

It was during that call that Mitchell was told Mazza's salary was "around $1 million," he said, a sum he called "outrageous."

Mitchell, who had only attended one board meeting at that point, resigned his position as a director of the non-profit Ornge soon after.

Long said she's still in contact with Mazza and knows where he is, but wouldn't disclose that information to the committee.

After testifying, Long quickly left with Mazza's brother Michael at her side, refusing to answer questions from reporters.

The committee also heard from another high-profile witness: Don Guy, Premier Dalton McGuinty's former chief of staff and longtime campaign guru, who saw him through four elections.

Guy, who billed Ornge's law firm $107,887 for his services, left McGuinty's office in July 2006 but served as the premier's campaign director in last fall's election.

Guy said he was first approached by Alfred Apps — a lawyer working for Ornge who later became president of the Liberal Party of Canada — in November 2007. He agreed to have lunch with Mazza, who told him about his son's tragic death in a skiing accident in 2006 and how he wanted to ensure there was never a delay in air ambulance services again.

While he usually didn't take on projects related to government or government operations, Guy said he made an exception after his meeting with Mazza.

"This was the only one and I sort of went against my instinct, but that lunch with Dr. Mazza made such an impression on me," he said. "You heard that story about his son and just went, wow, my God how can you not."

He started billing Fasken Martineau — Apps's firm — for his services Dec. 5, 2007 and stopped in March 2010, he said. While he provided Apps's law firm advice on Ornge, Guy said he never spoke to McGuinty about the organization or lobbied anyone in government.

However, he did speak to Health Minister Deb Matthews about Ornge during a post-campaign debriefing on Dec. 15.

Apps had contacted him the day before to ask whether Ornge should disclose the salaries of some of its executives. After advising Apps to do so, Guy said Apps asked how he could get Matthews a message from Beltzner that the board would co-operate.

"As I was seeing Ms. Matthews next morning for breakfast for a campaign post-mortem … I volunteered to convey the message to her," Guy testified.

"I did so in part of a conversation that lasted about a minute and it turned out that Ms. Matthews was already scheduled to meet with Ornge that afternoon. The response was a single, firm 'good.'"

Guy said he sent an invoice to Fasken on Dec. 18 after Apps asked him to go through some briefing documents on Ornge, but withdrew it three days later and received no payment.

"The little time I had spent on the file was paying attention to media reports and these were troubling," Guy said.

The committee has heard from three health ministers — including Matthews — who all say they had no idea there were any problems at Ornge until a few months ago.

David Caplan, who served as health minister from June 2008 until Oct. 2009, told the committee Wednesday that Ornge was a "rogue agency" whose management and board of directors "quietly" turned the not-for-profit organization into a for-profit corporation that would serve their interests and "obscure the lines of accountability and the flow of money."

"I'm not pleased at all with what went on at Ornge," Caplan said. "However, I can state categorically that during my time as minister, I did not see these kinds of red flags."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Guy was Liberal party president in 2006.