The acting head of the Ontario Provincial Police has asked a court to rule whether the provincial ombudsman can review the hiring process that saw Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner named as the next OPP commissioner.
The move came Friday, after Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé turned down a request earlier in the week from Interim Commissioner Brad Blair to probe “potential political interference” in the appointment.
Taverner, a close friend of Premier Doug Ford, is expected to be sworn in as commissioner on Monday. In his original request to the ombudsman on Tuesday, Blair asked that Taverner’s installation to be delayed pending his requested review of the appointment.
According to a statement late Friday afternoon from Julian Falconer, the lawyer who is representing Blair both personally and in his role as interim commissioner, Dubé “refused to exercise his jurisdiction to review Commissioner Blair’s request.”
In response, and in what could be one of his final acts as interim commissioner, Blair filed an application to a divisional court “to determine and enforce the jurisdiction” of the ombudsman to review the OPP commissioner hiring process.
“If the Ombudsman does not review the complaint, the independence of the OPP will continue to operate under a cloud of suspicion,” reads the application.
“This is a serious matter as the independence of the OPP — a body that can be called in to investigate provincial politicians — must be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the citizenry.”
Falconer expects the case could be heard by the courts early in the new year.
According to Friday’s application, the Ombudsman first declined to investigate due to jurisdictional issues, stating that Taverner’s appointment “is ultimately a decision of cabinet” and thus not within his scope to review.
Blair’s lawyers clarified, saying they were asking for a review of the hiring process before the decision was approved by cabinet, according to the application. But the Ombudsman again declined, saying that such an investigation would be outside the office’s traditional role of investigating public-sector bodies, and “does not extend to the investigation of the political actions (or alleged actions) of members of the executive including the Premier or their political staff.”
The application is relying on a section of Ontario’s Ombudsman Act, which states that when there is a question about whether the ombudsman has the jurisdiction to investigate any case, a directly affected person — in this case, Blair — “may apply to the divisional court for a declaration.”
A spokesperson for the ombudsman had no comment Friday afternoon. “Our office will respond to the application in court,” the spokesperson said.
Earlier Friday, the NDP made a personal appeal to Taverner, urging him to delay the appointment until an investigation has wrapped up — and, in a separate letter, called on the province’s attorney general to “stop his swearing in” if he doesn’t.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says Taverner’s appointment is too controversial, given his close connection to Ford, and said “officers and leadership of the OPP, as well as the people of Ontario must have absolute confidence there has been no political interference … and that there will be no political interference in policing matters going forward.”
In a letter to Taverner, she said he should “do the right thing.”
“That is why I am asking you to delay your installation and assuming command of the OPP until a full investigation … has been completed,” Horwath wrote.
She also accused Ford of demonstrating “poor judgment and a lack of transparency.”
In a second letter sent to Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, Deputy NDP Leader Sara Singh said “this appointment cannot go ahead under this growing cloud of suspicion … as Ontario’s attorney general and the chief prosecutor your first duty is to uphold the law … it is incumbent upon you to use your influence and authority as attorney general to intervene in this process and stop the swearing in of Supt. Taverner” for now.
Taverner’s appointment, announced Nov. 29, has been dogged by speculation that Ford interfered in the hiring process.
The Star’s Kevin Donovan has reported that Taverner had been previously offered the top position at the Ontario Cannabis Store and was considered for a deputy minister post.
Both Ford and Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones have accused critics of slinging mud at the 72-year-old police superintendent, who officially resigned from the Toronto force on Friday.
Jones has said the appointment to the $275,000 position was made on the advice of an independent panel. Ford has told reporters he did not recuse himself and signed off on the appointment.
The announcement on Nov. 29 unleashed an immediate storm of controversy. Horwath and the NDP’s community safety and correctional services critic, Kevin Yarde, have asked the province’s integrity commissioner to examine the appointment.
“If Taverner’s swearing-in goes ahead on Monday, what will Ford be demanding of him?” Yarde said in a statement from his office Thursday. “It’s critical that police forces operate without political interference and without conflicts of interest — real or perceived.”
The Star has reported that a top aide to Ford — and former employee of his family business — sold her Weston house privately to Taverner last year, something opposition MPPs suggested was a sign of a close connection, but which Jones dismissed as “willing seller, willing buyer.”
Blair, who had also applied for the top OPP job, released a letter to the provincial ombudsman Tuesday in which he complained about the selection process. He wrote that in the first round of interviews, conducted Nov. 12, the three men on the interview panel were Deputy Minister of Community Safety Mario Di Tommaso (who he says was Taverner’s direct supervisor at the Toronto police force), executive search company official Sal Badali, and Deputy Attorney General Paul Boniferro.
In the next round of interviews with a smaller pool of candidates on Nov. 20, Ford’s chief of staff, Dean French, was present in place of Boniferro.
Blair wrote that, with no explanation, French abruptly left the interview area, and said he was later told that French would no longer be involved. A source told the Star that French left because Star reporter Rob Ferguson had just sent questions regarding a story he was working on. The story, published the next day, revealed that French had ordered senior political aides to direct police to raid outlaw cannabis stores the day recreational marijuana became legal, and to show “people in handcuffs.”
The remainder of the interviews were done with a two-person panel. In his letter, Blair said it appeared a decision was made later that day.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy