As the SNC-Lavalin scandal reached a climax in Ottawa on Wednesday, another political interference controversy also came to a head in Ontario provincial politics, managing to slip relatively under the radar.
Months after going public with his concerns about the appointment of Premier Doug Ford’s close friend Ron Taverner as the next commissioner of the OPP, the force’s deputy commissioner Brad Blair, who was also in the running for the job, was fired this week.
Now Blair is threatening to sue the government for wrongful dismissal and plans to “seek full accountability and compensation for the actions leading to his termination.”
"The OPP can be called in to investigate provincial politicians, and the citizens of Ontario need to have faith that the OPP is truly independent, above political interference, and free from abuses of power," said Blair, adding that “the cost of a compromised OPP is too great a price to pay."
Under mounting scrutiny, on Wednesday, Taverner withdrew his name from consideration. His appointment was already in limbo as the province’s integrity commissioner investigated how he was hired.
How Taverner was appointed
Taverner, a 50-year veteran of the Toronto police, would not have been eligible to apply for the commissioner job, as per the original requirements listed in the job posting. As a superintendent, he was two ranks below the original requirement and was only allowed to apply after the posting was amended.
Taverner met with Ford several times after he took office, according to documents obtained by the CBC.
Blair, meanwhile, was one of the top contenders for the job, having been one of just three people to make it to the second round of interviews.
Explaining his decision to withdraw on Wednesday, Taverner said in a statement that he was abandoning the process to “protect the integrity of rank and file police officers given the controversy around [his] appointment.”
In response, Blair’s lawyers said Ford and Taverner “have finally recognized what the rest of Ontario has known for some time: that a longstanding family friend of the Premier cannot serve as the head of the OPP,” characterizing the move as a form vindication that strengthens Blair’s case.
“Brad Blair was right in insisting on transparency and accountability, in defence of the Ontario Provincial Police,” said Blair’s lawyer Julian Falconer. “It is sad in the extreme that the destruction of a good man’s career is the price to be paid for exposing political cronyism and abuse of power.”
Ford has missed 11 out of 17 question periods since Taverner’s appointment was announced in November. On Thursday, when asked about the issue by NDP leader Andrea Horwath, he called the NDP the “police hating party.” He thanked Taverner and accused the opposition of politicizing the process, rather than focusing on “how we can support our front-line officers.”
Ford has repeatedly insisted that he wasn’t involved in the hiring, and that the decision was made by a panel. He previously defended Taverner as the most popular police officer in the province.
“We look forward to having Ron Taverner as the commissioner of the OPP. You look at his credentials, speaks for itself, 50 years of policing around the province,” the premier said in December.
Blair was fired on Monday by Taverner’s former boss and current deputy minister of public safety Mario di Tommaso, who was also on the hiring committee that selected Taverner.
While Blair argues that his termination was a form of muzzling, the government has argued that he was fired by the public service for releasing confidential OPP information through his court filings, and that it wasn’t political.
What we’ve learned through Blair’s lawsuit
Blair was already suing the government to force the province’s ombudsman, who said it was beyond the scope of his powers, to launch an inquiry into Taverner’s appointment. As part of that lawsuit, Blair filed documents that suggested Ford was trying to get the $50,000 in upgrades to an OPP van that would’ve been used to transport him, including a power reclining leather sofa, a 32-inch TV with a Blu-ray player, and a mini-fridge, and that his chief of staff told the OPP to keep this cost “off the books.” Ford’s office denies this.
Documents also showed an account of Ford complaining about the rotating roster of officers in his security detail, demanding that it be made up of officers he already trusts.
“It feels like I’m not being heard, like I’m getting f—ed around by the OPP and I’m getting more pissed off,” Ford told an officer assigned to take him to the airport in July, according to that officer’s email to his superior. “I’m going to call the commissioner and sort this out. This is the last straw.
“If I have to, I will drive up there to see him face-to-face so he can see how serious I am about this. If he can’t sort this out then maybe a new commissioner can make it happen.”
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