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Vaughan Coun. Michael Di Biase's cottage getting help from major city contractor, rival says

A candidate in next week's Toronto-area municipal elections is demanding answers from his incumbent opponent about the role a major city contractor appears to be playing in building a cottage for the councillor's family.

Maystar General Contractors president denies his company is lending a hand on construction

Vaughan, Ont., councillor and former mayor Michael Di Biase, left, is building a cottage with help from personnel at frequent city contractor Maystar General, owned by Joe Maio, right. (Facebook/CitylifeTV)

A candidate in next week's Toronto-area municipal elections is demanding answers from his incumbent opponent about a major city contractor's role in building a cottage for the councillor's family.

Michael Di Biase, who is a regional representative on city council in Vaughan and was its mayor from 2002 to 2006, has a new waterfront home under construction on Orr Lake, 90 kilometres to the north.

A CBC investigation found work on the home appears to involve personnel from Maystar General Contractors, a Vaughan-based construction firm that has received more than $150 million in business from the city since 2002, often with Di Biase's supporting votes.

"It looks highly suspicious to me and looks totally inappropriate," said Richard Lorello, a longtime political activist in Vaughan who initially flagged the matter to CBC News, and has since registered to run against Di Biase. He expressed particular concern with Di Biase's vote in April 2013 to approve a $17.1-million settlement in a lawsuit brought by Maystar over Vaughan's new city hall, which the company built.
The Di Biase family cottage is being built on the shore of Orr Lake, about 25 kilometres north of Barrie, Ont. (Google Maps)

"It kind of calls into question the integrity of some of the votes that have transpired with respect to financial matters and Maystar. And the relationship for me is enough to warrant a deeper look, and a deeper investigation."

Di Biase denied the company is involved in building his family cottage, however.

"Maystar has no connections whatsoever," he said in an interview last week.

His sons both backed that up, saying they are hiring the subcontractors and co-ordinating work.

Maystar's main owner also denied his company is playing any role.

"We don't build cottages," said Joe Maio, president of Maystar, which bills itself as specializing in institutional and commercial construction and has built community centres, libraries, condo towers and fire halls throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

"Neither I nor Maystar has had any involvement with the purchase or the construction of Mr. Di Biase's premises."

Watery lot required an expert contractor: engineer

The one-acre property sits on the reedy western shore of Orr Lake, a pint-sized speck of turquoise wedged between Southern Ontario cottage country and the city of Barrie. Provincial records show the land is owned by a numbered company, 2075267 Ontario Ltd., whose sole director is Di Biase's wife, Eliana.

Construction at the site began this summer, but not without some challenges.

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According to an employee at Hannigan Engineering, a Vaughan-based firm that consulted on the cottage, the lot's water-logged soil required the installation of "screwpiles" — poles driven deep into the ground to hold up a building's foundation — and the use of reinforced concrete beams to support the walls.

But that kind of work is beyond the skill of an everyday contractor, the engineer said, and is why a larger player like Maystar was brought in. He recalled fielding one or two phone calls from the company, and said he was "99 per cent sure" it was acting as general contractor.

The supplier of those screwpiles, Techno Metal Post, also said Maystar had a hand in the work. Earlier this summer, Di Biase opponent Lorello said he called the supplier and posed as a potential client to elicit information about the cottage construction. In audio of a conversation Lorello said he recorded, someone with Techno Metal says: "We're getting paid by Maystar, so they're the general [contractor]."

Interviewed by CBC News last week, the company rep appeared to change his assessment: "They weren't the general. I think they were just, I don't know, helping out in one way or another…. I don't know if they're friends or whatnot."

Emailed Maystar exec

Around the time the screwpiles were going in, Di Biase sent two emails to several subcontractors about a delivery of steel rebar needed for the next step, pouring the foundation.

He copied the message to Maystar executive Emilio Manzo at his work email. 

Di Biase acknowledged this week that the Maystar exec "provided advice with respect to the construction of our family residence," but said it was "in his personal capacity, as a neighbour." (The Di Biase cottage is across the lake from Manzo's cottage, which is next door to Maystar president Maio's). 

"I am not aware of what his position is with Maystar," Di Biase said.

Manzo did not reply to phone and email messages seeking comment.

But one of Manzo's own assistants said the company was indeed acting as general contractor for the Di Biase country home. When a reporter called Manzo's office unannounced several weeks ago seeking the cottage worksite supervisor's phone number, and asked whether he's with Maystar, the receptionist who took the call said: "Well, he's working for us for that event, for that project."

"So you guys are the GC [general contractor]?"

"Yes," she replied.

Told of the phone call, Maystar president Maio said: "That's wrong information." 

Di Biase said he consulted with his family, and they "have no idea" why the Maystar receptionist would say that. And he was adamant in an email exchange this week: "Maystar is not constructing our family cottage," he wrote.

Prior tussles

This isn't the first time the politician, who has been a regional councillor for 18 of the last 26 years, has faced a challenge from Lorello, a seasoned critic of various Vaughan politicians. Lorello ran unsuccessfully against Di Biase in 2010, and also brought a complaint against him last year for publicly releasing information about a private city personnel matter. The city's integrity commissioner upheld the complaint and issued a reprimand to Di Biase. 

Maystar, too, is no stranger to controversy in Vaughan. The firm rose to prominence a dozen years ago, while Di Biase was mayor, by winning a series of city contracts in bidding processes fraught with irregularities.

In late 2006 — just after Di Biase exited the mayoralty — the company got its biggest contract yet from the city: the deal to build Vaughan's new city hall. Originally bid at $89 million, costs ballooned to $122 million. A legal battle ensued as the architects, subcontractors, Maystar and the municipality fought over who was to blame, with the city eventually agreeing to pay out $17.1 million.

Voted on contracts

Michael Di Biase has been a regional councillor in Vaughan, Ont., for 18 of the last 26 years, serving on city council and also in the wider York Region's assembly. He was mayor from 2002 to 2006.

During the current term, he's voted or participated in debates on at least five matters affecting Maystar, the company whose personnel one of his rivals argues are helping to build his family's new cottage:

  • At a December 2010 council meeting, Di Biase brought a successful motion that, among other things, ratified the choice of Maystar for a $4-million contract to build a new fire hall.
  • At a council meeting in January 2011, he brought a motion that authorized paying Maystar $3 million in construction cost overruns for Vaughan's new city hall.
  • At a special closed session on April 8, 2013, he voted in favour of settling a lawsuit brought by Maystar over the city hall. The city paid out $17.1 million.
  • At an October 2013 meeting of the Vaughan library board, on which he sits, Di Biase brought a successful motion to recommend that Maystar get the contract to build a new $2.9-million library. He later also voted in favour at city council.

In all these cases, Di Biase cast his votes in accordance with the advice of municipal staff. 

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Di Biase emails cc'ing Maystar exec