Former Ornge exec sues for wrongful dismissal

The Globe and Mail

Former Ornge CEO Chris Mazza falls back to his seat after trying to get up after testifying before a legislative committee July 18, 2012 in Toronto. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Lisa Kirbie, former director of government and regulatory affairs for Ornge, Ontario’s embattled air ambulance service, is suing the agency for wrongful dismissal.

In a statement of claim filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice last week, Ms. Kirbie, who was employed at Ornge from March, 2010, to July, 2012, accuses its former CEO of sexual harassment, alienation and causing mental suffering.

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She is seeking a total of 40 months in pay, as well as $100,000 for the infliction of mental distress and in punitive damages, plus legal costs. In 2011, Ms. Kirbie earned $143,000, according to salary disclosure reports.

The document alleges that Ornge’s former CEO, Chris Mazza, was “a racist and a misogynist … looked at her in a sexual way … and was a bully.” According to Ms. Kirbie, Dr. Mazza was an “incredibly demanding and volatile” employer who gradually marginalized her within the organization. His behaviour towards her, she claims, alternated between disdain and inappropriate attention and remarks. She alleges that he told her to use her “best assets” to promote company’s interests, a term she inferred to allude to her physical attributes.

None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been proven in court.

Dr. Mazza was unavailable on Tuesday. His partner, Kelly Long, a former associate vice-president of Ornge, dismissed the allegations as “disgraceful, without merit and entirely false. In his entire professional career, there’s never been a single accusation of that kind against Dr. Mazza,” she told The Globe and Mail. “It would be completely out of character.” Ornge employees, she said, were encouraged to report all incidents of harassment. “To my knowledge, no formal report about this was made. Otherwise, it would have been investigated and dealt with.”

Ms. Kirbie’s statement of claim further alleges that her future employment potential has been jeopardized because of the “criminal” stigma now attached to the company.

A not-for-profit provincial organization, Ornge is the focus of a simmering political and financial controversy at Queen’s Park, although no criminal charges have yet been laid. A 2011 Auditor-General’s report criticizing Ornge’s opaque business practices led to an all-party legislative probe, and the start of an official Ontario Provincial Police investigation, still under way. Among the disclosures is that Dr. Mazza’s salary soared from about $400,000 in 2005, when he joined the company, to $1.4-million in 2011; that he received an additional $1.2-million in loans; that Ornge operations were obscured in a labyrinth of public and for-profit companies; and that, shortly after it bought a fleet of new helicopters for $144-million from Italy’s AgustaWestland, the Italian firm agreed to purchase marketing services from a privately held Ornge subsidiary for $6.7-million.

Ms. Kirbie maintains that it was her refusal to be co-opted to work for Ornge’s private-owned concerns that led to her fall in favour.

Dr. Mazza, who is not a defendant in the statement of claim, testified for close to six hours before the legislative committee in July, denying knowledge of any wrongdoing. On medical leave since December, he was terminated without severance in August. He is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He’s not well,” Ms. Long said. “It’s been devastating to see so many people question the validity of the illness and the integrity of his character. He is a high performer and he did expect that of his employees. Some were comfortable with that approach. Some were not.”

Ms. Kirbie acknowledges in her statement of claim that she became a whistle blower, taping in-house conversations and regularly feeding information to the Auditor-General – even before the office launched its formal audit.

She also admits encouraging other senior Ornge managers to “take their concerns” to the Auditor-General.

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