Thursday, 22 March 2012

Is this ORNGE going to crush McGuinty?

This scandal shows that the Ontario Liberals have become so corrupt that even I, who unlike most of the fire-breathing conservative bloggers out there, have no innate visceral hatred toward them, agree with this image. The fact that I had to steal it from a nasty piece of work like Blazing Cat Fur also says something about what depths they've descended to.

It’s been almost two years since George Smitherman left the Ontario Provincial Liberal Cabinet. But the opposition must have one song in their head when they think of him today. The chorus of the Christina Aguilera one that goes

“Hold on…It keeps getting better

Alternatively, they might refer to him as the gift that keeps on giving.

My apologies for the corny references and clichés, but they work best to describe the utter ineptitude and blunders of the McGuinty government era. We are dealing with scandals which, when they break, are revealed to be of such magnitude that the public would have to be utter fools not to feel enraged. Disgusted. And taken for complete idiots. eHealth, G20, Mississauga Gas Plant cancellation, multiple TTC funding flip flops and the list continues. But the latest one is, in my opinion, the worst.

I’m talking, of course, about ORNGE, Ontario’s air ambulance service.

I admit I didn’t pay much attention to the scandal when it first broke out earlier this year. Vague rumblings about overpaid executives, administrative malfeasance, missing documents, unclear objectives; it sounded like par for the course for any mismanaged and inefficient government bureaucracy, especially in Ontario.

Then the auditor general released his report yesterday (A report that ORNGE was not willing to let him investigate the facts of last year – the health minister had to intervene). It is damning. The air ambulance service was being run – to borrow two more white collar crime terms quickly becoming clichés in the fast-evolving world of public and private sector corruption – as both a Ponzi Scheme and a Corporate Kleptocracy.

That is not an exaggeration. And it is a scandal that the government will not fact any consequences for this. I can tell you right now that there is no need for a committee, a public inquiry, a task force or a bloody Royal Commission on ORNGE. This is what stern newspaper editorial boards will be demanding, and they do not need to tread this lightly; there’s no point wasting any more time or money. The Ontario Provincial government has had plenty of time and lord knows, plenty of money to put its good intentions to work in so many different areas and initiatives, and time after time we end up with people on the take like this. McGuinty’s Liberals have burned through their last bit of scandal-forgiving goodwill with this one.

How bad is it? It’s very clear that soon after taking over the agency, ORNGE under ex-CEO Chris Mazza set up a web of shell companies that leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into a web of for-profit enterprises. This included buying an artificially inflated piece of real estate (the $15 million Toronto Airport corporate headquarters), which was then leased back to the taxpayer for a 40% profit. Only 3% of the money from all the various business ventures every flowed back to the taxpayer. That’s the Ponzi Scheme part of it. The Corporate Kleptocracy part is the money that was either just paid out, like 600,000$ to finance seven executives’ MBAs, or “borrowed” in extremely questionable accounting practices, like the millions to add to Mazza’s McMansion in Etobicoke. And he wasn’t even on the Sunshine List.

Through all of this, there was only one kind of interaction between the Health Ministry/Mr. McGuinty’s government and ORNGE. When ORNGE asked for more money, they gave it to them. No questions asked. And certainly no oversight.

I suspect ORNGE hasn’t caught on with the public as a scandal in the same way as eHealth did because the report was just released yesterday, and also because its uncovered costs have not (yet) reached ten figures – the amount required for the Opposition to trot out the old “billion-dollar boondoggle” catchphrase they used with eHealth. Yet eHealth, for all the hysterics at the time, turned out to be relatively minor in the rearview. Yes, there were some $2,500 a day consultants expensing $4 Tim’s Horton’s bills and some embarrassing golden handshakes to make the execs who were pigging out at the trough go away, but the program itself did do a lot of work towards a goal of logic and noble intent that is still a priority being worked on. It is useful, necessary even, to digitize the province’s health records.

This ORNGE scandal, on the other hand, is full of outright abuse, which is why I don’t think it’s going away. Yes, they needed to improve/modernize the delivery of the province’s air ambulance service but it did not need to done through this ridiculous no-bid contract that amounted to a blank cheque written to a bunch of crooks. Because it was a no-bid contract, granted by the same guy who granted the eHealth no-bid contract and the Samsung Green Energy no-bid contract: George Smitherman. His attempt to use semantics and twist himself into a pretzel in this interview show just how much denial he is in about his position of responsibility at the time and the fact that he clearly did not exercise due diligence and was asleep at the wheel. I laughed out loud when he says the CEO (the guy who was pulling down $3M a year in salary and taking millions more in loans) should not bear the responsibility alone because there was also a “blue-chip board”. What the hell does that mean? And his excuse for the no-bid (“Can you imagine if I granted that contract to the Australians?”) Pathetic!

This government has behaved time and time again like naïve parents who give their 16 year old kid keys to the Ferrari. Except theirs is a leased Ferrari. Parked in the garage of a house with 3 mortgages on it. George Smitherman clearly was (is, even though he’s not in government anymore) that sixteen year old. And Chris Mazza and the ORNGE executives are his punk ass friends.

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