This weekend, the selection of Ontario’s top police officer tiptoed up to the edge of becoming a crisis, and instead took a step back into mere scandal. Lucky us.
The first helping of cold comfort in this troubling saga arrived on Saturday when Ron Taverner, the Toronto Police superintendent who is Premier Doug Ford’s close friend and the government’s choice to lead the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), asked that his appointment be put on hold until the integrity commissioner has investigated it.
You know things are bad when someone is asking for an ethics probe into his own hiring, and with Supt. Taverner and the OPP, things are well and truly bad. The brief fit of sanity represented by this recent postponement should not convince anyone that the matter is closed.
The trouble starts with the fact Supt. Taverner and the Premier are pals. They have breakfast together, hang out at the Ford family cottage, and once flew to Chicago to take in a hockey game. That alone makes the 72-year-old unfit to lead a shop that investigates allegations of wrongdoing in government, and must be able to do so independently. It shouldn’t need saying in a mature democracy, but the head of government cannot make his buddy chief of police.
Unfortunately, this scandal doesn’t end with Supt. Taverner and whatever job he holds. The process that led to his abortive selection still needs to be investigated. It stinks, and it risks undermining the independence of Canada’s second largest police force.
An impartial, properly empowered investigator could ask a lot of interesting questions about the Taverner affair:
Why were the job qualifications for OPP chief lowered two days after being posted, just enough to make room for Supt. Taverner? Was the Premier’s chief of staff, Dean French, involved in that decision? Was the Premier?
Why did Steve Orsini, the head of the Ontario’s public service and the province’s most senior bureaucrat, suddenly retire last Friday, only hours before Supt. Taverner’s appointment was put on hold? He was on the OPP hiring panel. Are the two events linked?
What should we make of a report that the Ford government was looking to give Supt. Taverner another senior job before they tapped him for the OPP? Or of the fact that recently hired Deputy Minister of Community Safety Mario Di Tommaso was both Supt. Taverner’s former boss and on the panel that interviewed candidates for the OPP job?
Why was Mr. Ford’s chief of staff involved in the hiring process, as OPP Deputy Commissioner Brad Blair alleges, if Supt. Taverner was recommended to cabinet by an independent, arms-length panel, as the government insists?
And what of Deputy Commissioner Blair’s other serious allegations? He says that the decision to hire Supt. Taverner appears to have been made before the cabinet meeting that supposedly made the decision, and that the Premier’s chief of staff asked the OPP to procure a camper-type vehicle for the Premier, without putting the contract out to tender, and keeping the spending off the books and hidden from the public. If that’s true, it may be a criminal allegation.
We already know that a highly unusual process to replace the head of the OPP led to the selection of a 72-year-old mid-level Toronto cop who happens to be the Premier’s friend. Questions are natural. The government should welcome them. Because right now, it looks for all the world like the hiring process was gamed to give a Ford crony the province’s top law-enforcement job.
If that’s true – and there’s no proof it is – Mr. Ford would be guilty of trying to interfere with the independence of the provincial police. That’s the sort of thing politicians used to resign over. It’s in his interest to try and clear the air. The whiff of wrongdoing isn’t going away on its own.
More importantly, a proper investigation into this matter would serve the public. As Mr. Blair wrote in a letter to the provincial ombudsman, “If the hiring process remains enveloped in questions of political interference, the result will be irreparable damage to police independence.” No one wants to live in a province whose police force is suspected of being beholden to the government of the day.
A public inquiry is the answer. Appoint a retired judge with impeccably non-partisan credentials. Give him or her the power to compel witnesses and evidence. Let’s find out if the government tried to make the Premier’s friend the top cop. Right now, it sure looks like it.