Contents of search warrant tied to Winnipeg police HQ construction to remain hidden
Judge rules search warrant at centre of criminal investigation into police HQ sealed until next year
Information used to obtain a search warrant of the headquarters of Caspian Construction will remain sealed for several months, as the RCMP continues an extensive investigation of the new Winnipeg Police Services headquarters project.
The Caspian offices were raided by RCMP officers on Dec. 17, 2014. The company was the lead contractor doing massive renovations for the police headquarters at the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue.
The work is at least $75 million over budget and is now years delayed. Officers have yet to move into the building.
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CBC News applied to the courts to have the information in the search warrant for Caspian's headquarters made public, but the RCMP and the Attorney General of Canada sought to have an order sealing the material remain in place.
The CBC's lawyer in Winnipeg called efforts to keep the search warrant sealed "unusual."
Chris Wullum with law firm Tapper Cuddy said the disclosure of this kind information is routine.
"Most of the time in these situations, once the search warrant is executed the public is allowed to see the information," said Wullum.
On Monday, Manitoba Judge Dale Schille denied CBC's application.
Schille ruled it could jeopardize what is an extensive investigation into the construction of the new police headquarters.
"In this matter, disclosure of the sealed materials would have the probable impact of frustrating an ongoing investigation. The record discloses voluminous materials, which is in the process of being reviewed. Witnesses are being interviewed and other investigative steps are being taken, and yet others are being considered," said Schille.
Investigation has several 'targets'
Schille had heard warnings from the Federal Crown that disclosing information in the search warrant may tip off possible suspects in the case.
"It is clear that the release of the requested information would make the targets aware that they were under investigation as well as the identities of other potential targets," said Schille. "The sealed materials would serve to inform the targets of what is known and what remains unknown as well as planned and contemplated next steps."
Schille also sought to protect people who were co-operating with the investigation.
"Nondisclosure would protect the reputations of third parties and shield witnesses from any potential interference," Schille said in his ruling.
The judge also recognized CBC had the right to ask for the information and noted that it's legal counsel was hampered in making its case because the contents of the search warrant weren't shared before the arguments were made in court.
Schille wrote in his decision that keeping the sealing order in place was "regrettable" but "necessary."
Sealed warrant now has expiry date
CBC did win a small victory in court on Monday.
Schille ruled the sealing order could not remain in place open-ended, and he ordered the search warrant could opened in February 2016.
CBC bureau chief Cecil Rosner said the effort to get as much information as possible was important.
"Questions surrounding the construction of Winnipeg's new police headquarters are of great public interest. RCMP searches of Caspian Construction offices have been widely reported," Rosner said.
"The Supreme Court of Canada established more than 30 years ago that information relating to search warrants should be public, so we asked the courts to unseal the documents. As a result, more information has now been provided, and an end date to the sealing order is now established."
Willum said the public has a right to know what's happening in court and with its tax money.
"Police investigations -- dealing with issues with public funding of construction projects -- all of those things are of huge importance to the public. That's part of the media's role. To investigate these and make available to the public," said Wullum.
CBC can appeal Schille's decision.
Court documents give glimpses into investigation
The effort to unseal the warrant also provided more insight into the RCMP investigation.
CBC was able to obtain a redacted (censored) version of the warrant.
It outlines how the RCMP received a request from the Manitoba Justice Department in August 2014 to review three city audits: The Winnipeg Police Service Headquarters Project Audit, the City of Winnipeg Real Estate Management Review and the New Fire Paramedic Stations Constructions Project.
In the application for the search warrant, RCMP Const. Marc Allard of the commercial crime section wrote the audits "were the catalyst to initiate this investigation," but they did not "form any part of the grounds for this application."
Highlights from censored version of search warrant
- Documents show a first witness met with the Winnipeg Police Service commercial crime unit in early November 2013.
- A second witness approached the WPS in January 2014, but when the search warrant was being written in December 2014, that witness had not been contacted for an interview.
- The warrant mentions public calls by the Winnipeg Police Association, the union representing Winnipeg police officers, to investigate the police HQ project.
- The police association raised concerns about Winnipeg police investigating a project that had members of its service on the steering committee overseeing the construction. "Investigating whistleblower tips puts the WPS in a very difficult position," read one of the concerns.
- The warrant refers to notes of a constable in the Winnipeg-RCMP integrated gang intelligence unit, but the details of what that person said are censored.
- The warrant describes a report completed by a member of the Winnipeg-RCMP federal serious organized crime section, but the information in the report is censored.
- The RCMP sought the opinion of an auditor and forensic accountant with specific expertise in the construction and the home building industry who is a certified anti-money laundering specialist.
- The RCMP sought an assistance order from local IT firm when it executed the warrant.
- The IT firm provided services for Caspian Construction, and the Mounties required help with passwords and security protocols on Caspian's computers. The assistance order also outlined concerns to prevent additions or deletions from the company's files if their system was remotely accessible.
- The warrant lists reasonable grounds for three offenses that may have been committed but censors what those offenses are specifically.
- The search warrant contains a hand-written note on Dec. 16, 2014 saying it had been reviewed by "team commander" for "Project Dalton."
- The warrant names several members of the Babakhanians family, who are owners and directors of Caspian Construction and Caspian Projects as well as other companies. It also identifies a number of properties they own.
- The warrant mentions a change of architect at the police headquarters project and notes, "Armik [Babakhanians, the president of Caspian Construction and Caspian Projects] did not get along with the City of Winnipeg's architect or the project manager."