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Saturday, 21 January 2012

Smitherman brokered meeting between Korean officials and ORNGE

Former health minister George Smitherman, the political architect of ORNGE, acted as an unpaid consultant last fall, brokering a meeting between South Korean business officials and ORNGE’s for-profit firm.


The South Korean officials wanted to purchase ORNGE expertise to set up an air ambulance service.


Smitherman told the Star neither he nor his consulting company, G and G Global Solutions, received payment for the meeting. He said he was acting as “ambassador” for Ontario.


Smitherman was the minister who created ORNGE in 2005. In a news release in July of that year, he described it as a not-for-profit, government funded service that would “streamline our air ambulance system to better ensure that emergency coverage improves across the province, especially in northern and rural communities.”


An ongoing Star investigation has revealed that in the six years since ORNGE was created, the focus of top executives like Dr. Chris Mazza, founder and former president, had shifted from building Ontario’s service to attempting to “leverage” public assets in a series of consulting ventures overseas.


These ventures include high-end executive health insurance and consulting services in Brazil and Saudi Arabia.


Current health minister Deb Matthews recently shut down the for-profit ventures following revelations in the Star in December.


Mazza, who was making $1.4 million a year, was president of both the non-profit ORNGE Ontario and numerous for-profit companies. Ontario taxpayers pay $150 million a year to fund ORNGE, and Mazza’s pitch was a promise that he would give Ontario three per cent of anything his ventures made internationally.


One plan was to sell ORNGE expertise to South Korea. In an emailed statement to the Star, Smitherman said a South Korean official who knows Smitherman’s business partner wanted to talk to ORNGE.


Smitherman and his partner run G and G Global Solutions, which provides “strategic advisory services to domestic and global clients.”


Smitherman said he frequently travels to South Korea and om his travels has learned that the country has “no trauma system or medical air transport system and thousands of people die there because of it.”


A South Korean medical official was visiting Toronto last fall, Smitherman said, and the official asked him to set up an ORNGE meeting.


Smitherman said his “Korean Canadian business partner,” Bill Choi, is friends with the Korean official. (Choi is away and could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.)


A meeting was arranged Nov. 3 at ORNGE headquarters, the well-appointed offices near Pearson airport dubbed the “Crystal Palace” by insiders.


On one side of the table was ORNGE president Chris Mazza and Tom Lepine, ORNGE’s top operations officer.


On the other side were Smitherman, Choi and two South Korean officials.


Smitherman said he was not paid for the meeting, which was set up to discuss ORNGE selling its services to South Korea.


“Ambassador for Ontario” was how he described his role. An ORNGE spokesperson also said Smitherman was not paid by ORNGE for setting up the meeting.


Smitherman had kept in touch with Mazza after leaving government. In an email exchange, he said he had “minimal contact” with Mazza, talking to him “maybe two times” before that meeting.


Smitherman said ORNGE presented data on its model of service delivery and provided a tour. The South Korean official described the need for a modern air ambulance service.


A follow-up letter was sent by ORNGE to South Korea before the Star’s first story broke in December. After that, with ORNGE in crisis mode, the South Korean venture ended.


In a recent email to the Star, Smitherman distanced himself from Mazza and the ORNGE debacle.


“When I left (government) 3½ years ago they weren’t a for-profit operation and the guy (Mazza) wasn’t making a fortune,” Smitherman said.


Smitherman said that had negotiations continued “it is likely that Ornge could have sold its highly specialized expertise to (South Korea).”


He said Mazza told him he was also trying to sell services to Kuala Lumpur.


The Star has reported that Mazza was the controlling shareholder of the for-profit companies and stood to gain financially, along with other ORNGE executives, if the deals went forward.


Mazza recently went on indefinite medical leave.

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