Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has moved to defuse criticism on the investigation of Mayor Rob Ford by calling on the Ontario Provincial Police to take control – prompting questions about why he did not make the move sooner.
The Police Services Board vice-chair, Councillor Michael Thompson, welcomed Chief Blair's move, but said the decision should have been made at the start.
"It would have always been best to have a third party to look into this or provide oversight," he said in an interview. "I think it is a safe way to go with this particular matter."
Chief Blair's request follows months of attacks from Mr. Ford and his brother Doug, who accused him of using the investigation to benefit rival mayoral candidate John Tory and "play politics" – a charge the mayor repeated Wednesday. The chief made comments – as recently as last week – about videos featuring the mayor: one in which Mr. Ford appears to smoke crack cocaine and another in which he insults the chief by name. Chief Blair has told the media he was "disappointed" by the first video and "disgusted" by the most-recent one, in which the mayor uses sexually explicit language to describe the chief.
OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis will assume immediate oversight of the probe.
"With the recent activity in Toronto, with complaints against the police chief and some of the media comments that have been made," he said Wednesday, "I can see why the chief is thinking, 'Members of the public are going to wonder if I'm doing the right thing.' "
He said he's confident Chief Blair has acted properly all along, "but at the same time, if we can help and ensure that we put that buffer zone in there to show the impartiality, then that's what we'll do."
In his letter to Commissioner Lewis Wednesday, Chief Blair said his decision was made in order to "avoid the distractions that have assumed such recent prominence." The letter followed a phone conversation between the commissioner and Chief Blair on Tuesday.
The ongoing investigation, called Project Brazen 2, was launched in spring of last year, after reports surfaced of the alleged crack video. That investigation included months of surveillance on the mayor and his friend, alleged drug dealer Alessandro Lisi, and documented a litany of allegations from former staffers, including sexual harassment and drug abuse. The probe has already resulted in charges against Mr. Lisi for drug trafficking, and extortion related to the alleged video.
"It doesn't change. I'm still the investigator in charge and I'm still leading the investigation," Toronto Police Detective Sergeant Gary Giroux told The Globe and Mail Wednesday.
But instead of Toronto Police leadership, his team will now answer to OPP Detective-Inspector Chris Nicholas, a veteran officer who led the investigation into sex killer Colonel Russell Williams. Det.-Insp. Nicholas, who joined the OPP in 1987, is part of the force's criminal investigations branch, a squad of top investigators, and is based at OPP headquarters in Orillia, about an hour's drive north of Toronto.
Det.-Insp. Nicholas will report up the chain to Commissioner Lewis until the end of this month – when Commissioner Lewis is set to retire – and after that, Vince Hawkes, who will take over the helm of the OPP.
Any decision on whether to lay charges will be made with an OPP officer in charge, Commissioner Lewis said.
Alok Mukherjee, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, which oversees the force and to which Chief Blair is accountable, is out of town and could not be reached to comment on the decision. Acting chair Dhun Noria declined an interview request.
Ever since Chief Blair first revealed in October that police are investigating the mayor, both Mr. Ford and his brother have called on him to step down or distance himself from the probe. But Chief Blair responded by saying that that there was no conflict, and vowed that the Toronto Police would conduct the investigation "without fear or favour."
He only changed his mind, Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said Wednesday, after "a significant increase in the level of personal attacks" over the past few weeks.
In the past week alone, revelations have surfaced that Doug Ford has submitted two separate complaints against the chief alleging bias. The mayor also dared Chief Blair in front of reporters to "arrest me," and continued complaining about the chief in Los Angeles during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Mr. Pugash maintained that Chief Blair was not involved with Brazen 2, saying "he did not direct, he did not meet with Det. Sgt. Giroux. He played no role in the investigation." Mr. Pugash added, however, that "if there's even the slightest suggestion that a personal attack may impede or damage a case in front of the courts, we will err on the side of caution."
Still, the mayor didn't seem impressed by Chief Blair's move, telling City Hall reporters Wednesday "the damage has already been done."
He's not worried about the possibility of being charged by police, he said, asking "charged for what? Empty vodka bottles or urinating in a park?"
Both are references to incidents witnessed by investigators during their months-long surveillance of the mayor.
And Mr. Ford's lawyer, Dennis Morris, echoed the mayor, saying that he doesn't believe Chief Blair will be far enough removed from the probe.
"It's police-speak for 'it's too hot in the kitchen. I'm going to pretend I'm exiting the kitchen, but I'm really not,'" Mr. Morris said. "'I'm still the chef and someone else is temporarily wearing my hat, but all my sous chefs are still in order.'"