Premier Doug Ford is under fire for seeking what the New Democrats are lampooning as an OPP-supplied, “off-the-books personal pleasure wagon.”
But Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones insisted Wednesday that Ford only wanted the Ontario Provincial Police to give him a van to do work in.
With the premier ducking the legislature’s daily question period to avoid the opposition barrage over the controversial appointment of his buddy Ron Taverner, 72, to be OPP commissioner, it was left to Jones to defend the government.
The minister insisted Ford wanted “a used van because he wants some space to work so that he can call constituents and he can continue to work.”
In a letter last week to the Ontario ombudsman, OPP Deputy Commissioner Brad Blair alleged the premier’s chief of staff, Dean French, asked the force “to purchase a large camper-type vehicle … modified to specifications the premier’s office would provide us” and keep the costs “off the books.”
Jones told reporters “that the accusation that was made about having it off the books was categorically false.”
Asked if she thought Blair was “lying,” the minister said, “I’m saying that he is suggesting something that didn’t occur.”
Through his lawyer, Julian Falconer, the OPP deputy commissioner declined to weigh in on Jones’ comment.
The minister, meanwhile, refused to say whether one of the customized features sought by the premier was a “swivel chair” for the police van.
NDP MPP Taras Natyshak (Essex) implored the Tories to “stand up to this premier and tell the premier that providing an off-the-books personal pleasure wagon is not the job of the Ontario Provincial Police.”
Taverner, a 51-year veteran Toronto police superintendent and Ford family friend, is awaiting the results of an integrity commissioner report on whether there is any conflict of interest in his appointment before being sworn in.
The Tories are sending mixed signals about whether they will abide by Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake’s recommendations, which could come within the next four to six weeks.
Jones repeatedly declined to say whether the government would accept Wake’s findings, even if he concludes Taverner received a patronage appointment.
“I’m not going to presuppose anything that happens. I’m going to wait for the integrity commissioner to report,” she said.
But Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said “we respect his work and we will respect his recommendations.”
“We will of course abide by the recommendations of the integrity commissioner,” said Mulroney.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she is hopeful Wake will use his powers to strike an independent inquiry into Taverner’s hiring.
“I wrote to the integrity commissioner, asking him to use his power under the Members’ Integrity Act to conduct a full, public inquiry into this matter,” said Horwath.
“Given the importance of the OPP commissioner’s position, only a full, public inquiry can ensure full, public confidence and give the public the answers they deserve,” she said.
Horwath, whose party has obtained Ford’s schedule through a freedom of information request, wondered about the appropriateness of the premier dining with Taverner and Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders on July 30 at Posticino Ristorante in Etobicoke.
That dinner was held five days after the premier met privately with then-OPP commissioner Vince Hawkes.
“I would think that that meeting with Vince Hawkes was one where the commissioner of the day had probably informed the premier that he would be announcing his retirement shortly,” the NDP leader said.
“Very coincidental then that five days later, Mr. Ford’s calendar includes a dinner with Mr. Taverner,” she said.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Ford is emerging as “the chief conductor on the gravy train.”
“The premier’s chief of staff has … requested that the OPP provide a special sole-sourced vehicle for the premier and for it to be kept off the books and out of public scrutiny,” said Fraser.
Taverner has declined repeated requests from the Star seeking comment.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie