The Ontario government is facing renewed pressure to crack down on corruption and violence in the province’s towing industry, after the arrest of three Ottawa police officers in an alleged tow truck-related kickback scheme.
“The big thing is that if it’s happening there, it’s happening other places too. It’s not limited to a specific area,” Mark Graves, president of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario, said Wednesday.
The case – in which police constables were allegedly taking payments for information about car crash locations – comes at a time when the tow truck industry is already under scrutiny in Ontario. A Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year revealed that a tow truck ‘turf war’ has been raging across the Greater Toronto Area for more than a year. At least three men with ties to the industry have been killed, and more than 35 trucks have been set on fire. Just this week, another tow truck was set ablaze in a Markham driveway.
Fraud and kickbacks have proven lucrative for some operating within the towing industry, particularly a specific segment known as collision towing or “accident chasing.” But while under-the-table arrangements with body shops and rehab clinics have become an open secret, the revelation that the corruption could also involve police takes the situation in Ontario to a new level.
Ottawa Police Constables Hussein Assaad, 44, Kevin Putinski, 32, and Andrew Chronopoulos, 38, were charged on April 23, 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.
The investigation began in June, 2019, after Ottawa police received a tip about a member of their service who was allegedly involved in towing-related corruption. For integrity purposes, Ottawa police handed that information over to the RCMP’s anti-corruption unit.
According to court documents, Constable Assaad is alleged to have been “providing confidential police information to unauthorized persons” as far back as February, 2019.
In March and April of this year, Constable Putinski and Constable Chronopoulos are alleged to have provided “corrupt offers” to Jason Ishraki – the owner of Ottawa United Towing – in relation to kickbacks for information about car crashes.
Mr. Ishraki is similarly charged with making corrupt offers to the three constables (and his mother, Veronika, is charged with being knowingly privy to those “secret commissions.”)
Between March 7 and April 23, Constable Putinski and Mr. Ishraki are alleged to have made a fraudulent insurance claim in connection to a car crash.
And in the final days before he was arrested, police allege Constable Assaad provided Mr. Ishraki with access to confidential police databases.
It’s unclear how the officers knew Mr. Ishraki.
In addition to Ottawa United Towing, corporate documents show Mr. Ishraki owns a parking enforcement company in Ottawa called Park Right. According to its website, Park Right “offers parking enforcement solutions for businesses and residential buildings. We use a variety of methods to enforce your parking lot rules and regulations.”
Corporate documents also show that Mr. Ishraki incorporated a numbered company with a man named Hussein Assaad last June, though it is unclear what that company does. The address linked to that company, on Gilligan Road, appears to be a towing yard. Lawyers for Mr. Ishraki and Constable Assaad declined to comment. The Ottawa Police Association also declined to comment.
Industry stakeholders have long argued that the only way to solve Ontario’s towing problems is to establish standardized provincewide licensing regulations.
Tow truck operations are licensed at a municipal level in Ontario, but fewer than 20 of the province’s 444 municipalities have such a system, according to the Canadian Automobile Association, which provides towing and roadside assistance services to its members.
Ottawa does not have any such regulations. A feasibility study is under way by the city into the prospect of establishing some regulations for the towing industry at a municipal level. Asked if the recent alleged police corruption scandal adds urgency to this endeavour, the city declined to comment.
In a statement, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly acknowledged that these allegations “will likely shake the trust and confidence that OPS members have worked long and hard to earn with the public.”
Ottawa Police Sergeant Chris Montague – who handles the service’s impound lot, where vehicles that are towed as part of criminal investigations are held – told the Globe earlier this year that towing-related violence has been on the rise in the city since mid-2018, and that provincial regulation is what would truly be needed to weed out the corrupt players. “Municipalities can only do so much,” he said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has pledged that his government would crack down on the province’s towing industry, though the specific details of their plans remain unclear – particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“Our government’s first priority is the health and wellbeing of Ontarians. We remain deeply concerned of the reported violence occurring in the towing industry and work continues across government to deter this behaviour,” a spokesperson for Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney said in an e-mail.
Mr. Graves said that his association has been working with the MTO, and is confident that provincial licensing is going to happen.
“Provincial licensing has been on the tale for 15 years. We’re the closest we’ve ever been with any government,” he said. “This [corruption case] just reinforces the fact that we need it.”
With a report from Rick Cash
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