Three veteran Ontario Provincial Police officers are facing charges for giving preferential treatment to certain tow-truck operators, in the latest corruption probe to target an industry long plagued with violence.
In an interview Saturday, OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique said he received an internal complaint back in early 2019 about the relationship between some of his officers and towing operators.
“Preference was given to a particular tow company in exchange for benefit to the officers,” he said, declining to get into the specifics of what that benefit was.
“It’s fairly complex. It’s not a traditional [arrangement where] there’s an exchange of cash, it’s not necessarily that straightforward. It’s a very complex investigation.”
The OPP investigation is the latest criminal probe to target Ontario’s troubled tow-truck industry.
As The Globe and Mail revealed in an investigation into the tow-truck “turf wars” last February, more than 50 tow trucks have been set on fire, and at least four men connected to towing companies have been killed, as operators compete for bigger slices of a lucrative segment of the industry known as collision towing or “accident chasing.”
On Wednesday, OPP Provincial Constable Mohammed (Ali) Hussain, 52, with the OPP’s Toronto detachment, was arrested and charged with secret commissions and breach of trust.
His colleague Provincial Constable Simon Bridle, 53, with the Highway 407 detachment, was arrested Thursday. He faces the same charges, as well as an additional charge for obtaining sexual services for consideration.
An endorsement warrant has been issued for a third officer, Provincial Constable Bindo Showan, 57, also with the 407 detachment, who is currently out of the province.
All three have been suspended with pay.
Three other OPP officers have also been suspended as part of this investigation, under the Police Services Act, Commissioner Carrique said. He said the probe is continuing, and more charges could be laid.
The charges are “disappointing” he said, but he hopes they send “a strong message to the commitment of the Ontario Provincial Police to deal with corruption in the towing industry, and to deal with allegations of criminal or inappropriate behaviour of our officers.”
This is the third investigation since last summer that has led to towing-related corruption charges against police officers in Ontario.
Around the same time that the OPP investigation was getting under way last year, the Toronto Police Service’s professional standards unit was beginning a probe of its own.
Toronto Police Constable Ronald Joseph, who was running a car rental agency and tow-truck business on the side, was charged in an organized crime bust last June. In addition to being accused of receiving payments and kickbacks, Constable Joseph is alleged to have provided a police radio to tow-truck drivers to help them monopolize their hold on parts of the business.
Commissioner Carrique confirmed that the OPP case did not involve radio thefts.
“However, as with any major investigation, we have had connectivity to various policing partners throughout – Toronto included,” he said of any connection between the two cases.
Ottawa’s municipal police force also saw three of its officers charged last year, in connection with towing-related corruption.
Constables Hussein Assaad, 44, Kevin Putinski, 32, and Andrew Chronopoulos, 38 were charged after a 10-month investigation by the RCMP, which found that officers were acting “in concert” with certain tow-truck operators, and providing information about car-crash locations for a fee. An Ottawa towing operator, Jason Ishraki, was charged with making corrupt offers to the three constables.
These cases are ongoing, and the allegations have not yet been tested in court.
In addition to the OPP officers arrested last week, a prominent towing-company owner is also facing charges.
Sutheshkumar (Steve) Sithambarpillay, who owns Steve’s Towing and is one of the featured towing operators on the Discovery Canada reality show Heavy Rescue 401, has been charged with aiding and abetting breach of trust and secret commissions.
The 52-year-old’s photo had been removed from the TV show’s website as of Saturday morning. In an e-mail, a spokesperson for Bell Media said that Mr. Sithambarpillay (who goes by the name Steve Pillai on the show) “has appeared as a minor character in previous episodes of Heavy Rescue: 401. However, in light of recent events, he will not appear in subsequent episodes of the new season currently airing on Discovery.”
Though Commissioner Carrique would not comment on the specific nature or origin of Mr. Sithambarpillay’s relationship with the three officers, he said Steve’s Towing “is obviously the tow company of choice, right? And how that relationship was operating has led to those charges.”
Commissioner Carrique said he has given direction to his officers not to work with Steve’s Towing, or Mr. Sithambarpillay’s affiliate companies, which include CCC Towing and Leigh Environmental.
As a result, Mr. Sithambarpillay has written a letter to Ontario’s Attorney-General (which was forwarded to The Globe) arguing that such a direction is unfair and illegal as he should be considered innocent until proven guilty.
Reached by phone Saturday, he denied the allegations against him and says he is a victim. He noted that he has himself asked the OPP to investigate corruption within the towing industry, both before and after two of his own trucks were burned last year.
Mr. Sithambarpillay said he plans to fight the charges, and that his primary concern is the ability of his employees to work, given the OPP direction to not to work with his companies.
“Until I’m proven guilty, they cannot stop my employees [from] making a living,” he said.
The Ontario government has established a task force to address the violence within the province’s towing industry, and specifically the “chasing” business which involves the towing of vehicles that have been in a collision. This element of the industry is rife with fraud, with businesses such as body shops, rental-car agencies and physiotherapy clinics routinely paying tow-truck drivers kickbacks to bring them business. In some cases, entire crashes are being staged.
A joint forces investigation into the industry, led by York Regional Police, resulted in more than 30 charges last summer – many of them in connection with these fraudulent crashes.
Industry stakeholders have long argued that the only way to solve Ontario’s towing problems is to establish standardized province-wide licensing regulations.
Natasha Tremblay, a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, said in an email Saturday that the task force’s work " is in its final stages and will assist the province in developing a regulatory model that will increase safety and enforcement, clarify protections for consumers, improve industry standards and consider tougher penalties for violators.”
Mark Graves, president of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario, said Saturday that the charging of three more police officers is “further proof that the corruption is deeper than was originally thought.”
It is also further proof, he believes, of the urgent need to overhaul the industry, and said he “applauds” the government for their work so far.
Commissioner Carrique, who also sits on the province’s task force, said he is optimistic about a pilot project announced last month that will see some portions of Ontario highways contracted out to vetted towing operators, eliminating the first-on scene policy that encourages tow truck drivers to race each other to – and even fight over – crash scenes for business.
“I think it is absolutely essential,” Commissioner Carrique said, “and we look forward to moving forward with it.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.