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Mario Di Tommaso (left), Doug Ford (centre) and Toronto Police Inspector Ron Taverner (white shirt second right) attend the 5th Annual Toronto Police Chief Invitational at Markland Woods Golf Club on June 18, 2018.Jessica Storkey/Flickr

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is defending the relationship between its Community Safety deputy minister and a police commander at the centre of last year’s Ontario Provincial Police hiring controversy.

The NDP challenged the government in the legislature on Tuesday about whether the process in selecting a new OPP commissioner was tainted by a potential conflict of interest. A Globe and Mail story earlier in the day outlined new details about the relationship between Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner and Mario Di Tommaso, the deputy minister.

The two men worked closely together at the Toronto Police Service for nearly 40 years. In October, 2018, the newly elected government chose Mr. Di Tommaso as a deputy minister. That November, he went on to screen several prospective police commanders before sending Supt. Taverner a job offer to become the new OPP commissioner. (Months later, Supt. Taverner abandoned his pursuit of the force’s top position).

Prior to the hiring process playing out, records reveal that the two men had exchanged several workplace messages supportive of each another. In one of them, Supt. Taverner sent an e-mail asking his police colleagues to celebrate the “outstanding contributions” of his departing commanding office, Mr. Di Tommaso, at an event held four days before he became a deputy minister.

“The [Globe] story reveals that Taverner helped organize the retirement party of the man who would then sit on his hiring committee,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said during Question Period. "… Does the Premier acknowledge that the deputy minister he hired had a conflict?”

Inside and outside the legislature, Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones replied that her government sees no such conflict surrounding Mr. Di Tommaso. “Because he knew an individual that he had worked with in the same organization? No,” the minister told reporters.

The NDP first raised questions about the relationship last year, when the Premier and Ms. Jones vouched that Supt. Taverner was hired through an open competition run at arm’s length from government.

Former OPP deputy commissioner Brad Blair is suing Premier Doug Ford and Mr. Di Tommaso. His lawsuit alleges that their friendship with Supt. Taverner cost Mr. Blair consideration for the top job.

Advocacy group Democracy Watch says it also is preparing to file a formal complaint about Mr. Di Tommaso taking part in Supt. Taverner’s hiring.

The group’s founder, Duff Conacher, said in an e-mail that the optics of the past relationship could violate a legal regulation stating that in Ontario “a public servant shall endeavour to avoid creating the appearance that preferential treatment is being given.”

In March, Integrity Commissioner David Wake released a detailed 100-page report criticizing the “flawed” OPP hiring process.

The watchdog’s report states that Supt. Taverner and Mr. Ford are friends, but the Premier never inserted himself in any hiring process. Rather, some of Mr. Ford’s close aides and advisers made interventions, and that rendered the process unfair.

Mr. Wake’s report never accused anyone of violating any specific rules.

But Democracy Watch said Tuesday that the conclusions of the report are unsatisfactory.

The advocacy group announced this week that it is suing the Integrity Commissioner’s Office in Ontario divisional court. Its lawsuit seeks to force the release of documents related to the review. It also seeks to force the Integrity Commissioner to publicly lay blame for the flawed hiring process on specific individuals.

“The public has a clear right to know whether its watchdog has found its government employees guilty of wrongdoing,” Mr. Conacher said in a statement.

The Integrity Commissioner’s Office is not commenting on the lawsuit. Ivana Yelich, a spokeswoman for the Premier, said the lawsuit “appears to be nothing more than another one of Mr. Conacher’s frivolous complaints."

With a report from Laura Stone