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The Globe and Mail

OPP won't probe Niagara Parks without request

Images of Niagara Falls, and foreign visitors to the falls when many of the tourist attractions are shut down, but the roar and mist from the falls is ever present. Also pix of Oak Hall, the headquarters of the Niagara Parks Commission, with storm clouds forming above - the building that is.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

A former member of the Niagara Parks Commission has asked the Ontario Provincial Police to investigate alleged wrongdoing at the Crown agency, but the OPP says it will not do so without a request from Niagara police or the provincial government.

The OPP's position has "flabbergasted" Bob Gale, a former commissioner and one-time police officer, who says Niagara Regional Police are "too close" to the parks commission to conduct an impartial investigation.

The chairman of Niagara's police services board, Douglas Martin, is a member of the parks commission. Tourism Minister Michael Chan recently asked him to vacate his seat to make way for fresh leadership at the controversy-plagued agency.

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Mr. Martin, who, as mayor of Fort Erie, gets an automatic municipal appointment to the parks commission, declined to step down.

The chief of the parks commission's small police force is also a former Niagara Region officer.

Mr. Gale, whose complaints about an untendered lease for the Maid of the Mist tour boat operation in 2008 prompted an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation and subsequent provincial overhaul of the agency, said these local links led him to bypass Niagara police and call the OPP anti-rackets branch on Nov. 26.

The branch has a corruption unit whose mandate is "to investigate reported allegations of corruption involving the business activities within provincial and municipal government, ministries, and their agencies," according to the OPP website.

Mr. Gale said he called the OPP to report an alleged forgery, an unexplained disappearance of funds and other anomalies he learned about as a commissioner between 2006 and 2009, but was told to call Niagara Regional Police.

Inspector Dave Ross, an OPP spokesman, said the OPP's specialized units usually refer complainants to local law enforcement, which can ask the provincial force or another police service to investigate if it has a conflict of interest.

"The other way that we routinely receive requests for investigations in these sorts of matters would be directly from the Ontario government," Insp. Ross said. "That would be as a result of any government audits or reviews concerning provincial ministries and agencies that may have uncovered any evidence of criminal wrongdoing."

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Insp. Ross added, "As of this time, we have not received a request from either of those methods to conduct an investigation into the matter."

Mr. Gale and two other sources have told The Globe they reported alleged crimes and financial irregularities to investigators during a government probe in 2008, launched after Mr. Gale complained to Ontario's Integrity Commissioner about the untendered Maid of the Mist lease. The sources said their allegations were not followed up by government investigators or police.

Mr. Chan has ordered two new government audits of the parks commission's procurements and executive expenses, but has rejected calls from the New Democrats to bring in the police or the provincial auditor general.

Pressure for an independent probe has mounted since a Globe and Mail investigation found that complaints about improprieties have been swirling around the agency for nearly a decade. Some of the complaints involved Joel Noden, a senior commission executive who spent more than $400,000 on corporate travel and entertainment between 2006 and 2009.

Mr. Noden, who was fired days before The Globe obtained details of his expenses in a freedom-of-information request, has defended his spending as appropriate and in line with parks policies of the period.

Globe sources have confirmed that two former tourism ministers, including Tim Hudak, now leader of the Conservative Party, and veteran Liberal MPP Jim Bradley, were sent letters about alleged improprieties in 2001 and 2005 respectively.

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Mr. Bradley is currently Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees police services, including the OPP. He has been a Niagara-area MPP for 33 years.

A spokesman for Mr. Bradley's ministry said determination of who investigates a complaint is "an operational police matter." Complainants "may have recourse to the chief of police, the commissioner of the OPP and to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director if they feel their complaints are not being taken seriously," Anthony Brown said.

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