TORONTO - Ontario's opposition parties demanded Monday that deputy premier Deb Matthews resign, claiming she failed in her previous job as health minister to prevent serious problems at the Ornge air ambulance service.
A legislative committee found the Liberal government ignored repeated warnings about financial irregularities and operational problems at Ornge for years, said interim Progressive Conservative Leader Jim Wilson.
"It was the unanimous finding of the committee that minister Matthews was not diligent in pursuing red flags pointing to serious problems at Ornge," Wilson told the legislature. "Premier, how can you give the minister the position of president of Treasury Board when she has a proven track record of mismanagement and failed oversight?"
The committee report into Ornge said "it is not responsible" for the government to simply rely on boards of directors at the agencies it funds to provide oversight.
"There was an apparent inability or unwillingness of the Ministry of Health to obtain the information needed to exercise proper oversight of Ornge," it concluded. "The committee is concerned that given the lack of oversight of Ornge by the ministry, the same issues may be present in other transfer agencies."
The committee's report was very clear that Matthews did not do her job properly, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"There were a lot of red flags that were going up around Ornge, and that minister of health (either) wilfully ignored them or turned a blind eye to them," said Horwath. "I don't know what her problem was, but she certainly did not do due diligence, and she was not a very competent minister of health."
Both opposition parties said Matthews should be forced out of cabinet.
"She should at least go to the penalty box for a few months until these things are cleared up," said Wilson.
Premier Kathleen Wynne defended Matthews, and urged the opposition parties to help pass legislation that would strengthen government oversight of Ornge.
"There are measures that we believe must be taken that are included in the legislation that ... need to be put in place in order to make sure that the oversight that's necessary at Ornge is in place," Wynne told the legislature.
The Conservatives released a letter from the Ontario Air Transport Association to Matthews, dated May 2011, with a list of concerns about deficiencies in the medical-quality-assurance programs at Ornge, but Matthews said she never saw it.
"I just cannot comment on it because I have not read it," she said.
Wilson said the government was also aware of design problems with the interiors of new helicopters purchased from Italy that made it very difficult for paramedics to perform CPR in the air ambulances. There were also several multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Ornge for delay in transport and poor patient care, he added.
"Clearly the minister would have been briefed on Ornge for two years before she did anything at all," said Wilson.
The Liberals insist Ornge went rogue under former CEO Chris Mazza, who set up a complex web of for-profit companies and questionable business deals. Mazza collected $9.3 million over six years before being fired, while executives at Ornge and its related companies received $52.8 million between 2007 and 2011.
Mazza and the executives hid their salaries from the so-called sunshine list of public sector workers earning over $100,000 a year, which the legislative committee said should have been another 'red flag' for the Liberal government.
The committee requested that Ornge and the ministry take whatever steps are necessary "to retrieve funds and to pursue directors who have failed in their fiduciary responsibility to the full extent of the law, with a view to restitution."
The Ontario Provincial Police are conducting a criminal probe into financial irregularities at Ornge, which receives about $150 million a year in provincial funding.
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