Ontario’s integrity commissioner is being urged to investigate “abuses of power” in the premier’s office after whistleblowers accused Doug Ford’s top aide of ordering them to direct police to raid illegal cannabis shops.
The request from Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, MPP for Guelph, came Wednesday after Ford repeatedly evaded questions about allegations from Progressive Conservative political staff as first reported in the Star.
Four government insiders told the newspaper Ford’s chief of staff Dean French instructed them in two conference calls Oct. 17, the day marijuana became legal, to instruct police forces to make arrests at outlaw shops and to show “people in handcuffs” on the TV news.
“We need to have an independent investigation because the premier doesn’t seem to understand the serious nature of this,” Schreiner told reporters.
“If these allegations are true and the premier’s chief of staff is politically interfering with police business, literally ordering arrests to play political games, that’s the definition of a police state. That is wrong, that is dangerous and it goes against our democratic traditions.”
The provincial integrity commissioner’s office said the Green party request is “under review.”
“I can make appropriate inquiries if I have concerns that a conflict-of-interest rule has been contravened by a public servant,” commissioner J. David Wake wrote in a reply to Schreiner, noting the request is to determine whether French took any actions that were “an inappropriate and/or an illegal abuse of power” under the Public Service of Ontario Act.
However, under the act, Wake said he has no legal authority to release any information about an investigation and added “the decision to do so would be the premier’s.”
In the legislature’s daily question period, Ford maintained the government’s priority is to protect communities from the black market for marijuana.
“We were very clear — illegal dispensaries have no place in Ontario and operators would face stiff penalties and be shut down,” said the premier.
But Ford dodged questions on whether he had asked French about police interference and about news reports French improperly ordered Ontario Power Generation to fire former Patrick Brown chief of staff Alykhan Velshi, who is a newly hired vice-president. The Star has reported Velshi could be eligible for up to $500,000 in severance.
“The buck stops with the premier on this. Does he think the actions of Dean French, his handpicked chief of staff, are acceptable?” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, accusing Ford of turning a blind eye while his right-hand man “runs amok.”
“This is so troublesome even Conservative higher-up staffers tried to get this out,” Horwath added.
Ford dismissed the questions as “personal attacks.”
None of the premier’s answers in question period mentioned French by name and he did not repeat any endorsements of his chief of staff. On Tuesday, when asked about French’s role in the Velshi dismissal from OPG, Ford said he supports his chief of staff “1,000 per cent” because “he works hard, he’s honest, he has integrity.”
The four PC sources told the Star they ignored French’s police edict, pointing out it to him it was illegal, but checked with police forces on enforcement plans and did not issue orders. One staffer who questioned the directive was subsequently fired and the government has provided no public explanation. The dismissal has left fear in the ranks about retribution and the consequences of speaking “truth to power.”
“There are people on pins and needles,” one of the Conservative sources said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. “You don’t know who you can trust.”
Liberal MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers, a former dean of law at the University of Ottawa, said there is a disturbing “lack of comprehension” in the premier’s office about the dangers of political meddling in day-to-day policing.
“You want the public to trust the police and know that if they are being charged, if they’re being arrested it’s not because some politician has mandated it,” added Des Rosiers (Ottawa-Vanier).
“In some countries where there’s no respect for the rule of law, the politicians direct the police to go in and arrest their enemies.”
The PC sources told the Star that French, in the first of two conference calls with the community safety ministry and attorney general’s office, stated: “I expected to see people in handcuffs by now, but at the very least I expect to see them on CP24 by lunch.”
French has not replied to a list of questions from the Star about the conference calls and the Velshi situation at OPG. On Tuesday, the premier’s office did issue a statement citing the need for outlaw pot shops to close.
Despite the concerns raised by the whistleblowers, Government House Leader Todd Smith told reporters on Wednesday “I’m not seeing any cracks in our government.”
Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jonesinsisted the Progressive Conservatives understand the concerns about political direction of police.
“We are not directing the police on investigations. Full stop.”
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Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1