The Ontario Provincial Police has taken control of the Toronto Police Service’s investigation into Mayor Rob Ford.
Police Chief Bill Blair asked OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis to take the oversight role to “avoid the distractions that have assumed such recent prominence,” the city’s top cop said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The only public interest here is the continued investigation, without fear or favour, into evidence of possible criminality,” Chief Blair said.
The OPP is assuming oversight of Project Brazen 2, an ongoing Toronto investigation that is targeting both Mayor Ford and his friend, alleged drug dealer Alessandro Lisi. So far, the investigation has resulted in the arrest of Mr. Lisi for drug trafficking and extortion related to the infamous crack video, and tracked the mayor around the city for months, documenting Mr. Lisi and Mr. Ford's meetings.
But Mayor Ford told reporters at City Hall Wednesday afternoon "the damage has already been done," adding that "the chief, obviously, is just playing politics."
When asked whether he's concerned he may be criminally charged, Mr. Ford said "charged for what? Empty vodka bottle or urinating in a park, which one?" Both are incidents witnessed by investigators during their months-long surveillance on the mayor.
He repeated his demand to know how much police have spent on the investigation. "I want to know how much money they spent on surveilling me, renting planes, and doing the whole nine yards."
Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said that the same team of Toronto Police investigators, led by Detective Sergeant Gary Giroux, will continue leading the investigation. But now, they will be responsible to OPP leadership, rather than the TPS, he said.
Mr. Pugash said that Chief Blair first approached Commissioner Lewis on Tuesday about overseeing the investigation, and the issue was resolved Wednesday. He said the main motivation behind the decision was to avoid the risk of tainting any case that will come before the courts.
"We’ve seen a significant increase in the level of personal attacks, and it’s not about personal attacks," he said. "But if there’s even the slightest suggestion that a personal attack may impede or damage a case in front of the courts, we will err on the side of caution."
When asked whether the step signifies that additional charges are coming, Mr. Pugash said no. "That’s not intended to send that message," he said.
Commissioner Lewis said Tuesday that he was happy to help when approached by Chief Blair. He said that, given the recent words exchanged in public between the Fords and Chief Blair, “I can see why the chief is thinking, ‘members of the public are going to wonder if I’m doing the right thing.' And I’m confident that he is doing the right thing, but at the same time, if we can help and ensure that we put that buffer zone in there to show the impartiality, then that’s what we’ll do.”
He said that the original team of TPS investigators will now report to an OPP inspector, who will ultimately report up the chain to him. Any decision on whether to lay charges in the investigation will be made with an OPP officer in charge, he said.
When asked to describe his own relationship with Mayor Ford, Commissioner Lewis said the two do not know each other well. “I’ve met him at events and shaken his hands, but I don’t think he even knows my name,” he said.
The mayor's brother, Councillor Doug Ford, said he was "happy" to hear that the OPP will now be overseeing the investigation.
"It won't be so political, maybe."
Mayor Ford and his brother have been critical of the investigation and have questioned Chief Blair's leadership, accusing him of "playing politics."
Long-simmering tension between the mayor and chief escalated last week when Mr. Ford dared Chief Blair to arrest him and demanded he apologize to taxpayers for the expensive investigation.
“If he’s going to arrest me, arrest me. I have done nothing wrong and he’s wasted millions of dollars,” Mr. Ford said.
The Fords and Chief Blair have been publicly at odds since October, when the chief revealed police have a copy of a video that appears to show the mayor smoking crack cocaine. Chief Blair told reporters he was “disappointed” and police were investigating Mr. Ford. In November, Mayor Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine.
There have previously been calls for Toronto Police to refer the investigation to the OPP, given the Toronto force depends on city council for its budget and is governed by a civilian board partly appointed by city hall.
Councillor Adam Vaughan, a frequent critic of the mayor's, said that Chief Blair's decision highlights the seriousness of the allegations.
"Having the OPP come in, I guess, just helps us have confidence the police work is police work and hopefully we'll get some answers."
But he said he doesn't agree with the Fords' criticism about Chief Blair "playing politics."
"The chief has a very complex job. I don’t think he was as hands-on as the Fords would like you to believe," he said. "I don’t think that’s how policing works. And that certainly doesn’t work that way if what you’re looking for is success in the courts."