The interim commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police is seeking a review of “potential political interference” in the appointment of Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner, on Tuesday filing a formal letter of complaint requesting that Ontario’s ombudsman conduct a review.
The move comes less than a week before incoming commissioner Taverner is scheduled to be sworn in as the head of one of the largest police services in North America.
In a lengthy letter to Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé, interim OPP commissioner Brad Blair asks for Taverner’s installation to be delayed until a review of the application can be completed.
“Citing the objective of protecting the credibility and perceived independence of the OPP, Commissioner Blair, in his capacity as Commissioner of the OPP and in his personal capacity, is seeking a review so that the current level of public anxiety and concern may be addressed,” according to a press release sent on behalf of Blair late Tuesday night.
Blair was named interim commissioner by the Progressive Conservative government, via an October order in council.
In the letter, Blair says OPP members “have shared with me their concerns that the process was unfair and their feeling that the independence of the OPP is now called into question.”
“The officers know the consequences to come: if the police are to command public confidence and active co-operation, they must have unfettered confidence of the people of Ontario. That is, the concern of political interference runs counter not only to the principles of a democratic society but also to fully effective policing,” Blair writes in his letter.
The Progressive Conservative government’s appointment of Taverner has proven controversial, as Taverner, 72, is a close friend of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Ford has admitted he did not recuse himself from cabinet when Taverner was approved, but said he “had zero influence and no matter who it was I would have accepted.”
Taverner, who has 51 years with the Toronto Police Service, is a long-time unit commander in charge of Etobicoke divisions. Taverner was also close to the premier’s late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, and was often at Ford family barbecues and had informal breakfast meetings with both Rob and Doug Ford.
Critics within government have raised concerns about the Ford family relationship with Taverner, chief among them the fact that it is the OPP that is often tasked with investigations involving the government.
He succeeds Vince Hawkes, 56, who retired earlier this year.
Taverner was unanimously selected by a panel that included Steve Orsini, head of the Ontario Public Service, and newly appointed deputy minister Mario Di Tommaso, who is a former Toronto police officer and Taverner’s former boss.
In a recent TV interview, Taverner said he had never before sought an OPP job before he applied to be commissioner.
Blair’s concerns come after another former OPP commissioner, Chris Lewis, voiced his concerns about Taverner’s hiring, telling CP24 that “the fix was in.”
“There’s old relationships there, we all know it, and I think it was a travesty that this occurred … I don’t think it’s good for the OPP — and I don’t think it was a good decision on the part of government whatsoever.”
Blair’s complaint is not the first formal concern to be raised about Taverner’s hiring. At Queen’s Park, Ontario Integrity Commissioner David Wake’s office said a formal request for a probe into the Taverner appointment has been filed.
“I can confirm that a request has been made by MPP Kevin Yarde … and it is under review by this office. The office will have no further comment on the matter,” said Wake’s spokesperson Michelle Renaud, referring to the Brampton North NDP MPP’s letter to the office.
Renaud could not say whether the premier’s office had been in contact with Wake prior to Taverner’s hiring to ensure there was no conflict of interest.
“Under the Members’ Integrity Act … communication between the integrity commissioner and a member of the legislative assembly is confidential,” she said.
The controversial appointment dominated the legislature’s daily question period last week before MPPs rose Thursday for the Christmas break.
Ford has insisted there “was no better choice” than his family friend, but he maintained that he “didn’t know that decision until the day it was made.”
“A transparent choice, by the way, that I wasn’t involved in whatsoever,” the premier said last Wednesday, stressing that morale is low at the OPP and Taverner will boost the force’s esprit de corps.
“We need someone in there who connects with front-line people,” he said.
As iPolitics revealed earlier this month, the job posting for the OPP commissioner job was quietly modified in October, changing the criteria to allow applications from the superintendent level — two ranks below the initial qualification of deputy chief or assistant commissioner.
Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Sylvia Jones said the three-person hiring panel was independent.
“I have no concerns about the hiring process,” Jones said last week.
“I think the independent process did what it was supposed to do. We have an excellent candidate and I think when Mr. Taverner is in place Dec. 17 we will find a revitalized OPP.”
Di Tommaso, her deputy, was Taverner’s former boss at Toronto police, but in the new position reports to Secretary of Cabinet Steve Orsini, the head of the Ontario Public Service.
“So I don’t think there’s any conflict there,” the minister said.
Last week, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, interim Liberal Leader John Fraser, and Democracy Watch asked integrity commissioner Wake to probe any potential conflict of interest in the appointment, with Horwath saying “people deserve to know exactly what the premier’s role is.”
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and it really looks like this process was put together to favour Mr. Taverner and I think that’s inappropriate,” she said.
“It’s very reasonable to suspect that there was political interference. I think reasonable people would say ‘something’s fishy,’ ” said Fraser.
Democracy Watch also wrote to the integrity commissioner.
“If Premier Ford participated in any step of the process that led to his friend Mr. Taverner being appointed OPP commissioner, then he violated the province’s government ethics law, and that’s why the integrity commissioner needs to investigate,” said the group’s co-founder Duff Conacher.
Taverner made $178,968 last year while the OPP commissioner made $275,907 — representing an annual raise of almost $100,000.
In 2016, Taverner accompanied Doug Ford and Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders on a private plane to Chicago to take in a Blackhawks game, part of a prize package purchased at a charity auction.
Sal Badali of Odgers Berndtson, the head-hunting agency that “supported” the OPP commissioner’s hiring selection process, told iPolitics that “eliminating the rank requirement was done to broaden the potential pool of applicants.”
“It turned out that over half the pool of applicants were not at the deputy chief level.”
The OPP is one of the largest police services in North America, with more than 6,000 uniformed officers and 2,400 civilian employees.
With Star Files