Charges stayed in one of Ontario's largest Mob busts after alleged illegal conduct by investigators
Defence says police had no right to listen to calls with lawyers as part of Project Sindacato
One of the largest police investigations into organized crime in Ontario's history has fallen apart after police allegedly illegally intercepted phone calls as part of a multimillion-dollar probe into suspected Mob activity in the Greater Toronto Area, CBC News has learned.
The operation, dubbed Project Sindacato, resulted in charges against nine people in Canada who police alleged were part of a criminal organization with ties to the Mob in Italy.
On Jan. 27, prosecutors stayed the charges against six of the accused, including alleged boss Angelo Figliomeni, after defence lawyers raised concerns that investigators committed "significant breaches of solicitor/client privilege." Three of the accused previously had their charges stayed in 2020.
"The defence has taken the position that the entirety of the police investigation was tainted by what we would allege to be unlawful and illegal conduct by both York Regional Police officers and by members of the Canada Revenue Agency," Michael Lacy, Figliomeni's lawyer, said at last month's hearing following a defence application to have the charges stayed.
In an interview this week, Lacy told CBC News that York Regional Police and Canada Revenue Agency investigators "are the ones who actually breached the law for the purpose of their investigation."
Project Sindacato was an 18-month, $8 million joint investigation that began in 2018 involving eight different police services, including York Regional Police, the Canada Revenue Agency and police investigators in Italy.
The group was accused of running illegal gambling operations, fraud, drug trafficking and laundering money through casinos, York Regional Police said in a news release issued in July 2019. Italian State Police also arrested 12 people in connection with the investigation whom they described at a press conference on July 18, 2019 as "closely associated to the Canadian branch of the operation."
Police said at the news conference that the alleged Figliomeni organization was closely connected to the 'Ndrangheta, the most powerful organized crime group in Italy and one of the richest in the world.
Based in the southern Italian region of Calabria, the 'Ndrangheta are believed to make more than $80 billion a year — largely from drug trafficking, according to a 2014 news report.
Authorities involved in the case alleged that Angelo Figliomeni is the head of the 'Ndrangheta in Toronto, but Lacy said the York Regional Police investigation uncovered no such evidence.
'The public is left with nothing'
Police announced the arrests, along with the seizure of $35 million worth of goods, at a news conference on July 18, 2019. The property seized included five Ferraris, 19 other luxury cars, 27 homes, illegally modified gambling machines, luxury liquors valued at more than $120,000 and 38 Rolex watches with an estimated value of more than $750,000, according to York Regional Police's 2019 annual report.
Six of those who were charged were residents of Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, while the other three individuals resided in Toronto, Oakville, Ont., and Bolton, Ont., according to York Regional Police.
Adrienne Lei, a Toronto lawyer who didn't work on the case but has experience with police misconduct cases, said all officers are trained to know that privileged conversations between a lawyer and their client may not be used in court. "They must have learned this in the first minute, the first hour, day one of police training," she said. "They knew what they were doing was wrong."
After two years of work, millions of dollars in costs and extensive resources expended, Canadian authorities have almost nothing to show for it. All property seized by police must now be returned — with the exception of illegal possessions, such as the gambling machines, Lacy said.
Federal Crown prosecutor Xenia Proestos announced the charges were stayed after privately reviewing the results of an independent investigation by the Toronto Police Service's professional standards unit into the use of the privileged conversations. The investigation was requested by the Crown after Lacy's allegations.
CBC News requested an interview with York Regional Police to address concerns that investigators violated solicitor-client privilege, leading to the stay of charges.
They instead emailed a statement that said, in part, they are "extremely disappointed in the Crown Attorney's decision to not proceed to trial on the criminal charges," noting that they "worked collaboratively and diligently with the Crown from the onset" and "remain very proud of this investigation."
In response to CBC's interview request, representatives from the Canada Revenue Agency wrote that they do not comment on court cases.
"The public is left with nothing," Lei said. "This is a prosecution that could have gone ahead."
An internal systems review is needed to determine exactly what led to the stay of charges, she said. "This doesn't sound like it was one rotten apple ... it sounds like the tree is rotten."
The Crown has one year to bring forward the charges again with newly collected evidence before they must be withdrawn completely.
"I think the prospect of that in this case is zero," Lacy said. "If they did and we went to court and we litigated the allegations that we made, it would not turn out well for the York Regional Police," he said.
"What we alleged in our filing material was that they are the ones who actually breached the law for the purpose of their investigation. So I think that there's an element of irony in that."
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With files from Kari Vierimaa