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Ron Sapsford, Ontario’s deputy minister of health, is questioned by MPPs probing the eHealth scandal at the Ontario Legislature Wednesday.

Darren Calabrese/Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Ron Sapsford, the senior bureaucrat overseeing Ontario's push to create digital medical records, was on the hot seat, defending his role in what has been dubbed the "billion-dollar boondoggle," sparring with the provincial auditor and trying to escape a scrum of television cameras and reporters.

MPPs from all three parties had their first opportunity to grill the deputy minister of health Wednesday at a government committee hearing on the eHealth scandal. Mr. Sapsford blamed senior officials at eHealth for having awarded lucrative contracts to consultants last winter without seeking competitive tenders.

Mr. Sapsford said he was in the dark about lavish spending on consultants before reports about it appeared in the media in May. He said he repeatedly stressed to eHealth chairman Alan Hudson and chief executive officer Sarah Kramer the importance of following proper procedures in awarding consulting contracts, and both assured him they understood the rules.

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It was not until the Progressive Conservatives revealed information about contracts, Mr. Sapsford said, that he realized Dr. Hudson and Ms. Kramer had ignored his advice. The two officials resigned in June. Asked what went wrong with the ministry's oversight of the agency, Mr. Sapsford cited the judgment of individuals. "From my point of view, all the rules were in place and understood," he said.

As for his role in the $1-billion expenditure - an initiative intended to modernize the province's medical records that so far has accomplished little - Mr. Sapsford was more guarded. He defended the ministry's practice of awarding contracts to consultants without competitive tenders, saying, "We weren't paying people to do nothing."

He also refused to answer when asked if he expressed an opinion on whether Ms. Kramer should have been given the CEO job at eHealth. He said any advice he may have given is confidential.

Auditor-General Jim McCarter said in a report that both the ministry and eHealth Ontario awarded contracts on the basis of favouritism. The report also said Premier Dalton McGuinty directly intervened in appointing Ms. Kramer CEO of eHealth. The Globe and Mail reported in August that she was appointed over the objections of some civil servants.

Mr. Sapsford's attempts to explain why his staff initially blocked the auditor from getting access to the ministry - he said there was a difference in perspective regarding the appropriate scope of the audit - prompted Mr. McCarter himself to interject at the hearing. He pointed out that it is the auditor who decides the focus of an audit.

"At the end of the day, I call the shots," he said.

After his testimony, Mr. Sapsford declined to answer reporters' questions. "I have nothing to say, thank you," he said as the cameras pursued him through the provincial legislature to the exit.

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