Ontario Premier Doug Ford might have been of the hope that the SNC-Lavalin crisis in Ottawa would take the focus off his own ethics challenge in Toronto. Perhaps he thought no one would notice when his government fired a senior police officer who had blown the whistle on the attempted hiring of his close friend as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
If so, he was wrong. Mr. Ford’s government made a bad situation worse by firing Brad Blair, the former OPP deputy commissioner who made serious allegations of political interference in the choice of Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner as the next OPP chief. And on Wednesday night, in the wake of this accelerating controversy, Supt. Taverner wisely withdrew his name from consideration.
Mr. Blair says his firing was an act of reprisal, because he has urged the Ontario Ombudsman to investigate his claims of political interference. He also embarrassed the Premier when he revealed that Mr. Ford wanted the OPP to provide him with a van, retrofitted with swivelling leather seats, a fridge, a flat-screen TV and a power-reclining sofa bench. He further alleged the OPP was asked to keep the purchase off the books.
Mr. Ford and Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones deny the charge. They claim the firing was a bureaucratic decision based on Mr. Blair’s actions after he was passed over for the top job by Supt. Taverner – actions that included communicating with the media and releasing a letter to the Ombudsman.
But to accept the Ford government’s justification at face value, a reasonable person must also accept a mighty series of coincidences leading up to Mr. Blair’s dismissal.
The first coincidence is that Mr. Ford expressed unhappiness last summer that the OPP wasn’t responding to his request for a change in his security detail, and demanded a meeting with then-OPP commissioner Vince Hawkes.
This information comes from internal OPP e-mails submitted in court by Mr. Blair in an effort to bolster his argument that Mr. Ford and his office interfered with OPP operations, and that the provincial Ombudsman should investigate.
In one e-mail from an officer to his superiors, Mr. Ford is quoted as saying, “If [Vince Hawkes] can’t sort this out, then maybe a new commissioner can make it happen.”
Two months later, Mr. Hawkes suddenly announced his retirement, paving the way for Mr. Ford to choose a new chief.
The next coincidence occurred when Mr. Ford named Mario Di Tommaso, a staff superintendent with the Toronto Police Service, as deputy minister of community safety. Mr. Di Tommaso was Supt. Taverner’s superior in the Toronto police force. Among his first priorities as deputy minister was to find a new OPP chief.
In yet another coincidence, the criteria for the position of OPP chief were quietly watered down after Mr. Di Tommaso’s department posted the job, making Supt. Taverner eligible to apply.
In coincidence Nos. 4 and 5, Mr. Di Tommaso was on the board that interviewed candidates for the job, and was intimately involved in the decision to hire Supt. Taverner.
It was subsequent to this that Mr. Blair raised alarms about the unusual hiring process that led to an underqualified crony of the Premier being named to head the OPP. Last December, that prompted Supt. Taverner to ask that his appointment be put on hold.
And now we are back to the moment this week when Mr. Blair was fired – by, in coincidence No. 6, Mr. Di Tommaso. Mr. Di Tommaso drove to OPP headquarters in Orillia on Monday so he could deliver the message in person.
Given the back story, Mr. Blair’s contention that his firing was an act of reprisal is believable.
As well, the firing further heightens the perception that Mr. Ford and his office tried to pick a new OPP chief who would do the Premier’s bidding, whether on matters related to his security detail or more serious issues.
In all of this, the bottom line remains unchanged: The Premier cannot name an underqualified buddy to run the police force responsible for investigating government. In stepping aside, Supt. Taverner has recognized what Mr. Ford did not.
Ontarians are owed a full investigation into this whole affair. People need to know if the government manipulated the hiring process to choose the Premier’s friend as top cop, and whether it fired another senior cop for blowing the whistle.