Incoming OPP chief, friend of Doug Ford, dogged by 'bias' allegations
Interim OPP commissioner, Ontario NDP call for probes into Ron Taverner's appointment
The interim commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police is calling on the province's ombudsman to investigate "questions of political interference" in the recent appointment of Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner as the service's next commissioner.
Brad Blair, who has been leading the force on an interim basis since Vince Hawkes resigned as commissioner on Nov. 2, filed a formal request on Tuesday amid growing concerns about the hiring process, which he claims has "deeply affected the morale of the rank and file."
"It is clear to me that as the current commissioner I must put my service to the OPP ahead of personal ambition in order to repair the apprehension of bias over this process and the potential damage to the reputation of the OPP," Blair wrote in a nine-page letter to ombudsman Paul Dubé.
His chief complaints include the impact on the "perceived independence and integrity of the OPP" along with public confidence in the service as an "independent policing agency."
Taverner, a close friend of Premier Doug Ford's family, was named the OPP's next commissioner last month and will assume his post on Dec. 17, serving a maximum three-year term.
The original posting for the next commissioner required interested candidates to hold, at minimum, the position of deputy chief or assistant commissioner. Those requirements were lifted two days later.
Despite sitting two levels below the rank of deputy chief in the Toronto Police Service, Taverner was tapped by Ford's cabinet at the unanimous recommendation of an independent, three-member hiring panel.
"The facts of the hiring process … raise a legitimate question as to whether the OPP's integrity has been compromised and whether the public can have confidence in and respect for the OPP going forward," said Blair.
I have a moral and legal obligation to ensure that the OPP remains independent.— Brad Blair, OPP interim commissioner
Just days after Taverner was awarded the top job at the OPP, the Ford government admitted it lowered the requirements for commissioner to attract a wider range of candidates for the job amid controversial reports that the premier had meddled in order to appoint a friend.
With more than 6,000 uniformed officers and 2,400 civilian employees, the OPP is Canada's second biggest police service.
"Of the 27 applicants, only four, that I am aware of, did not meet the original threshold requirements," Blair said in the letter.
While he applied to lead the OPP, Blair said his request for an independent review of the selection process has "nothing to do" with his desire to remain commissioner.
For his part, Ford has repeatedly stressed his long relationship with Taverner was not a factor in the decision.
"We're friends. I'm friends with thousands of people," Ford said last week, while noting he was in the cabinet meeting that hired the longtime Toronto commander.
Government 'stands by' appointment
Taverner, a 51-year Toronto police veteran in charge of Etobicoke divisions, is well respected within the service for building relationships with marginalized communities. CBC Toronto reached out to him for comment, but did not hear back.
Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones said in a statement Wednesday that the government is "not going to comment on Mr. Blair's motivations for using the office he holds to raise these issues.
"The government stands by the process leading to the appointment of Mr. Taverner as the next commissioner of the OPP," she continued, adding that Taverner has five decades of policing experience.
"It is unfortunate that this service has been unfairly maligned by unfounded allegations about the appointment process," Jones said.
She concluded by saying that Queen's Park would "respect any decision made by the ombudsman about an inquiry into this matter and would co-operate with any such review."
NDP calls for multiple investigations
In an address to reporters on Wednesday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath backed Blair's call for a review by the ombudsman's office and added that she'd like to see a non-partisan emergency select committee carry out its own investigation. The committee would have the power to call witnesses and subpoena any relevant documents.
"The independence of police forces is fundamental to the health of our democracy," Horwath said.
"Mr. Taverner's appointment cannot go ahead under this cloud of suspicion."
She also asked Taverner to step aside while his appointment is reviewed, imploring him to "do the right thing."
During her own remarks, Liberal MP Marie-France Lalonde echoed the call for Taverner to delay his installation. Lalonde said that if he refuses, Ontario's solicitor general should step in to, at the very least, postpone his appointment.
Horwath, who leads Ontario's Official Opposition, similarly wants the province's integrity commissioner to carry out his own investigation in the circumstances of Taverner's appointment.
"I'm concerned that it might have been Doug Ford himself who determined who would be the next commissioner of the OPP," she said.
Mr. Taverner's appointment cannot go ahead under this cloud of suspicion.- Andrea Horwath, Ontario NDP leader
In his letter, Blair contends the hiring process "remains enveloped in questions of political interference" that are eroding the foundations of the OPP.
"I have a moral and legal obligation to ensure that the OPP remains independent," Blair wrote to the ombudsman.
"To have this new command assumed without addressing this matter will cause dysfunction in the service and undermine the command."
Security detail questions
Blair outlined incidents relating to the premier's security detail that he contends escalate concern about Taverner's impartiality.
In the letter to the ombudsman, he alleges Ford's chief of staff, Dean French, asked the OPP to purchase a "large camper-type vehicle" from a "sole source" and have it "modified to specifications the premier's office would provide us," the expense of which should be "kept off the books."
The request, at minimum, violates the province's financial policies, Blair says.
CBC Toronto tried to contact French, but did not receive a response.
In her address at Queen's Park, Horwath called for the RCMP to probe the request for a customized camper.
He also cited a dispute between Hawkes, the OPP's former commissioner, and Ford shortly after the Conservative Party won the June 7 election.
Blair claims the premier requested a face-to-face meeting with Hawkes over shared security detail with the Lieutenant Governor, during which he asked that specific officers, ones he "would feel comfortable with," be in that detail.
Ford stated if the then-commissioner "would not address the issue, perhaps a new commissioner would," he said.
"Ultimately, the premier's request was approved and implemented by the OPP."
The letter goes on to say that shortly after the PC's announcement that Taverner would be the next commissioner, Blair met with Taverner on Dec. 2. The pair went over the transition and reviewed some challenges the force faces at a Swiss Chalet, he said.
During that meeting, Blair claims that Taverner said that following his Nov. 20 job interview, he was approached by a reporter who said that he had seen the Toronto officer leaving Ford's office.
Blair says in the letter that Taverner told him that "he asked the reporter to hold off on any story in exchange for providing this reporter with a first interview in the near future."
He, however, could not remember the reporter's name.
Delay Taverner's appointment, Blair urges
To rectify the problem, Blair suggests delaying Taverner's installation as commissioner until a review can be completed.
"Given the current cloud of perceived bias and inappropriate political interference in the process, it cannot be in anyone's interest to place Supt. Taverner in the position, as it would only serve to undermine command and diminish the public confidence in the OPP," Blair said Tuesday in a joint letter to Jones, the safety minister, and Attorney General Caroline Mulroney.
Groups such as Democracy Watch have also sought other avenues to address concern that Ford interfered in the hiring process and violated the Ontario Legislature's Members' Integrity Act.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of the national organization that advocates for government accountability, requested Ontario Integrity Commissioner David Wake to probe the circumstances behind Taverner's hiring.
With files from Lucas Powers