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Members of the Fire Marshal's office and York Regional Police forensic team examine an arson scene at Pro Car Rental in Vaughan, Ont. on Monday June 22, 2020. The car rental business is owned Toronto Police Constable Ronald Joseph, 47, who is charged in connection with a tow truck crime ring.J.P. MOCZULSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A Toronto police constable who was running a car rental agency and tow-truck business on the side has been charged as part of an organized-crime bust within the Greater Toronto Area towing industry.

In addition to being accused of receiving payments and kickbacks, the officer – Constable Ronald Joseph, 47 – is alleged to have provided a police radio to tow-truck drivers, to help them monopolize their hold on parts of the lucrative business.

“Once we did our preliminary investigation, we learned that this was a bigger issue,” Inspector Brett Nicol, with Toronto Police Service’s Professional Standards unit, said Monday. “This group, the way they were operating, was consistent with a criminal operation.”

Along with Constable Joseph, another 10 people including seven tow-truck drivers are facing charges.

The Professional Standards unit first heard rumblings about stolen police radios and towing-related police corruption last August – at the same time that violence within the GTA towing industry was beginning to escalate.

As a Globe and Mail investigation revealed in February, tow-truck drivers have been engaged in a deadly turf war for close to two years, fighting for slices of the collision towing – or “accident chasing” – business. Since 2018, more than 50 tow trucks have been set on fire, multiple people have been shot and at least four men with ties to the industry have been killed.

The “chasing” business is rife with fraud, and it is an open secret that peripheral businesses such as body shops, rental-car agencies and physiotherapy clinics are willing to pay tow-truck drivers kickbacks to bring them business. In some cases, entire crashes are being staged.

On May 9, police pulled over a tow-truck driver for dangerous driving on Highway 400, and discovered an official Toronto Police radio in his cab; one with the same identification number as another radio in use by police. The radio had been stolen and cloned, with the cloned radio then returned to the police station in the original’s place – a swap that police allege was done by Constable Joseph.

The constable is facing numerous charges including three counts of breach of trust; two counts of secret commissions; counselling forgery; counselling breach of trust; attempted fraud over $5,000; commission of an offence for a criminal organization (unauthorized use of a computer); participation in activities of a criminal organization (unauthorized use of a computer); possession of a device to intercept private communications; and trafficking in property obtained by crime.

Constable Joseph – who police say had a rental-car agency and two tow trucks – was also allegedly receiving kickbacks and referrals for those side businesses.

The police service was aware of his rental-car company, Acting Staff Superintendent Domenic Sinopoli said at a news conference Monday, but not the tow trucks.

In the past, Insp. Nicol explained, Toronto police officers were required to declare any side businesses. But the rules were changed in recent years. Now, officers are required to declare side businesses only when they self-determine that there could be a conflict of interest. With the tow trucks, he said, that hadn’t happened.

Constable Joseph is scheduled to appear in court in September. In the meantime, he is suspended with pay.

Police described the group as an organized criminal network linked to a towing company called Maximum Towing, which they say was being run by Francisco Mike Portela, 41, who was also charged. The group’s network was sophisticated, Insp. Nicol said – with programmers working to clone and build encrypted radios, as well as a private app that would broadcast the radio transmissions to a wider network of tow-truck drivers for a monthly fee.

A total of three Toronto Police radios were recovered as part of the investigation, along with additional radios and radio parts that are believed to have been stolen from other police services. Six tow trucks were also seized, along with a loaded 9 mm handgun.

This is the second time in two months that the corruption in Ontario’s tow-truck industry has been linked to police officers.

Three Ottawa Police constables were charged in April in connection with an alleged kickback scheme involving tow-truck drivers who would pay them for information about crashes.

In the Greater Toronto Area, arrests continue to be made in a joint-forces operation into the towing violence, led by York Regional Police in partnership with the Toronto Police Service and the Ontario Provincial Police. More than 28 people have been charged so far in that investigation, dubbed Project Platinum. At least another 20 arrests are expected.

Stakeholders in Ontario’s towing industry have long called for reform, arguing that existing municipal regulations are patchwork and inefficient.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has pledged that his government would crack down on the province’s towing industry, although the specific details of the province’s plans remain unclear – particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In the meantime, the violence continues.

Around 3:30 a.m. Saturday, a rental-car company in a complex at 101 Freshway Drive in Vaughan was set on fire. The fire was so strong that it blew out a wall, as well as a garage door at the back of the building. Three vehicles parked out back also caught fire.

York Regional Police are investigating.

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