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Canada Critics question corporate invites to Ontario deputy minister’s dinner

Ron Taverner, second left, Toronto Chief Mark Saunders, centre, and Mario Di Tommaso, second right, pose together for a photo on June 18, 2018.

Jessica Storkey/Flickr

A police commander-turned-senior civil servant in Ontario will be feted this week at a Toronto dinner where corporate entities have been invited to attend at a premium price.

The party is for Community Safety deputy minister Mario Di Tommaso, who in November made headlines after he helped choose Premier Doug Ford’s friend as Ontario’s next police chief.

Mr. Di Tommaso, who was himself hired by the Progressive Conservative government in October, had spent his prior career at the Toronto Police Service and retired as a staff superintendent. His nearly four-decade career will be celebrated at a police-retirement party on Thursday, where tables are being sold to the public – and to corporations.

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“Upon reflection, we can understand how some may perceive this as inappropriate,” Meaghan Gray, a Toronto Police spokeswoman said, in response to Globe and Mail questions about the corporate tables. She added that “I can only say that he [Mr. Di Tommaso] has had very little to do with planning this event.”

Observers have criticized the event’s organizers for selling corporations access to a man who is now a deputy minister.

An online notice for the party says it will feature a three-course meal with wine. Single tickets are $85, 10-seat tables are $850, but “corporate tables” cost $1,500. “Please join us in celebrating Mario Di Tommaso’s 38 years of dedication and service with the Toronto Police Service and congratulate Mario on his new role as Deputy Minister of Community Safety for Ontario,” the notice says.

On Thursday, Community Safety Ministry spokesman Greg Flood responded to The Globe’s questions about the event by saying that the “retirement dinner is being organized by friends and colleagues. … Questions about the dinner should be directed to the Toronto Police Service."

But on Monday, Mr. Flood provided a more detailed answer. “We have confirmed with the Office of the Conflict of Interest Commissioner that it is not inappropriate for Mr. Di Tommaso to attend his own retirement party,” he said. “As would be expected of any public servant, Mr. Di Tommaso has and will continue to respect his ethical duties as a public servant, including in his interactions with any individuals or entities who may be in attendance at that event.”

Ms. Gray said that although “corporate pricing is generally not used for police retirement functions” it is being used to cover event costs and to keep ticket prices lower than they otherwise might be. Proceeds from the event are to go to Toronto Victim Services, according to the online notice.

Late last week, ethics experts and opposition politicians raised questions about the retirement party in conversations with The Globe. They pointed out that ethics considerations will surround Mr. Di Tommaso’s interactions because he is now running the province’s biggest policing department and budget.

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“How does this man not look at this and say, ‘I’m in a position of public trust. No matter who is organizing this, it is not acceptable that it looks like someone is selling access to me,’” said Ian Stedman, a lawyer and government-ethics expert pursuing a PhD at Osgoode Hall Law School.

He said the event does not appear to contravene the Public Service of Ontario Act. But he added that civil servants must be wary about giving rise to any perceptions of preferential access.

Ms. Gray said Mr. Di Tommaso’s former colleagues planned the dinner and set prices. About 230 tickets have been sold, she said. Neither Toronto Police nor the Community Safety Ministry specified how many corporate tables had been sold, or which specific entities would be attending.

“I think the corporate sponsorship is inappropriate,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, a Liberal MPP and community-safety critic. “That shows a lack of judgment and not understanding the perception of independence we require for effective policing.”

NDP community-safety critic Kevin Yarde also criticized the event. “Because Mario Di Tommaso is moving into a high-level government role – not retiring into private life – an event at which corporations can pay for access raises some questions,” he said. “Did he review this event with the secretary of cabinet?”

Under Ontario government procedures, deputy ministers are encouraged to clear any ethical issues they may have with the cabinet secretary. This position is held by Steve Orsini, who is retiring at the end of the month. Mr. Orsini’s office did not reply to questions about the event sent by The Globe on Monday.

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In the fall, Mr. Orsini and Mr. Di Tommaso were the two key decision makers on the government hiring panel that chose Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner, 72, as the next commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police. Most of the outcry surrounding the OPP appointment to date has centred on Supt. Taverner’s long-standing friendship with Mr. Ford, and whether that relationship could compromise the investigative independence of the OPP.

Supt. Taverner deferred taking the OPP job until the province’s integrity commissioner completes a review of the hiring process.

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