Ex-ORNGE boss’s $9.3M compensation raises questions about validity of ‘sunshine list’

Ousted Ornge CEO Chris Mazza.

News that the founder of Ontario's scandal-dogged air ambulance service got more than $9 million in compensation before being fired nearly two years ago won't be a confidence-booster for the province's taxpayers concerned about public-sector transpancy.

Dr. Chris Mazza, CEO of ORNGE until he was dismissed early last year, received $9.3 million in public money over a period of six years, according to documents obtained by the Toronto Star.

The accounting ORNGE prepared for a provincial government audit team revealed Mazza was paid much more than previously known.

The Star reported that Mazza got $1 million in 2007, the second year of ORNGE's operation. But the Ontario government's so-called "sunshine list" stated Mazza got just $298,254 that year.

That's the last time Ontario taxpayers got any information about Mazza's compensation. The Star reported previously Mazza set up a series of for-profit companies that helped shield his and other executives' salaries from public disclosure and that he diverted money to them from ORNGE, which is non-profit.

[ Related: With alarm bells ringing about Ornge, McGuinty kept pressing snooze: NDP ]

ORNGE, which gets about $150 million a year from the government, dodged the fresh questions raised by the accounting documents, saying in a statement "it would be inappropriate to comment on the actions of individuals who have not been affiliated with ORNGE for nearly two years," the Star said.

Spokesman James MacDonald said the company's current executives are "committed to transparency, accountability and respect for public dollars."

Well, that's good to know.

But the disclosures raise a question about the credibility of the public-sector salary disclosure list, which is supposed to provide taxpayers with a better picture of what top bureaucrats are earning.

Is the government reviewing whether other organizations that get government funding have not been subject to the same financial manipulations as ORNGE?

Mazza's activities at ORNGE became a major black eye for the Liberal government under then-premier Dalton McGuinty. The province began a probe last year into reports of an alleged kickback scheme involving the purchase of new helicopters and the inflated lease-back of a building it owned, inflated salaries and nepotism in hiring.

[ Related: Tories say Mazza belongs in jail, not working in hospital ]

The government was reportedly aware of the problems at ORNGE under Mazza's leadership but did nothing until stories about them broke in the media in late 2011.

The Ontario Provincial Police are conducting their own investigation into $6.7 million paid to one of Mazza's copanies from an Italian firm that sold ORNGE 12 helicopters, the Star said.

Mazza was fired in early 2012, followed by a purge of ORNGE's board of directors and executive suite.

Meanwhile, Mazza has resurfaced as an emergency-room doctor at a Thunder Bay hospital, raising more ire from the Opposition, which thinks he should be cooling his heels in jail.

Health Minister Deb Matthews said the province has no control over who hospitals hire and it's up to the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons to decide if a doctor is fit to practice medicine.

And things weren't absurd enough, Mazza is also suing his old company, claiming he's owed $1 million in unpaid bonuses, The Canadian Press reported last week.

The claim is made in a countersuit filed by Mazza against ORNGE, which has gone to court to try and recover $500,000 plus interest in a defaulted loan he got from the company in 2010 to buy a house in Toronto, CP said.

Mazza claims the money wasn't a loan at all, but an advance on unpaid bonuses from 2009 and 2010 that were part of the compensation package ORNGE's board had approved.

(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)