Vaughan's Michael Di Biase should lose 3 months pay, ethics czar says

Vaughan's deputy mayor should be docked three months' salary — the maximum penalty allowed — for intimidating city hall staff in an attempt to provide behind-the-scenes help to a private construction company, the city's integrity commissioner says.

Di Biase, through lawyer, denies any wrongdoing

Vaughan's deputy mayor should be docked three months' salary — the maximum penalty allowed — for intimidating city hall staff in an attempt to provide behind-the-scenes help to a private construction company, the city's integrity commissioner says.

In her final recommendations following a four-month investigation, Vaughan Integrity Commissioner Suzanne Craig says Regional Councillor and Deputy Mayor Michael Di Biase violated nine clauses of the city's code of conduct, with "serious implications" for the municipality.

"The actions of the respondent have left the city open to public criticism and questioning of ethics in procurement on the one end of the spectrum and financial liability on the other," her report says.

Craig recommends Vaughan council vote to suspend Di Biase's salary for 90 days, the highest penalty allowed for a code of conduct infraction under the provincial Municipal Act. That would amount to nearly $20,000. 

Even before Craig's recommendations were published Friday evening, Di Biase's lawyer Morris Manning wrote a letter to her, calling the investigation biased and saying she didn't give Di Biase a fair opportunity to rebut the allegations against him because she withheld details of her evidence.

"My client denies he committed the wrongdoings alleged. Your refusal to provide him with the details upon which you based your decision does not enable him to give a proper response," says the letter, published on the City of Vaughan's website.

"You deliberately and most unfairly sought to blindside my client." 

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The letter suggests two other councillors and Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua also showed bias against Di Biase and should be precluded from debating or voting when city council takes up the matter as scheduled on Tuesday.

That vote could see council opt for the penalty recommended by Craig or one of three other options: a lower amount, a simple reprimand or no penalty at all.

'Abusive' and 'intimidating'

Craig's interim findings, released last week, concluded that Di Biase directed "abusive language" and "intimidating actions" at city staff who resisted his efforts to get confidential information from them about the bidding process for two major construction contracts.

"I find that the respondent applied inappropriate pressure to staff with a view to exercising influence or assisting [Maystar General Contractors] with the with the business of the municipality," Craig wrote.

Maystar is a major Vaughan construction company that has received more than $150 million in business from the city since 2002, including the contract to build Vaughan's new city hall. Craig's investigation was prompted by a complaint based on a CBC investigation last fall that reported personnel from Maystar appeared to be helping build Di Biase's family cottage.

The integrity commissioner's report made no findings or comments about Maystar itself.

Longtime Vaughan city hall activist Richard Lorello, who filed the complaint, said he was "very happy" with the investigation and its outcome.

"There's been persistent rumours and innuendos that there has been interference in tendering matters with respect to Maystar … and the integrity commissioner's investigation substantiates that there were grounds behind those rumours," Lorello said.

"I'm very happy that finally the rumours and innuendos are exposed to the public to see, and any future elected officials understand that what Mr. Di Biase did is totally unacceptable."

Lorello, who has tussled with Di Biase before, most recently by running against him in last fall's municipal elections, added that he hopes the findings will lead to a wider probe of tendering practices in Vaughan.

"I think council should not only adopt her recommendations but also consider a judicial [inquiry]," he said.

"You have to remember that Mr. Di Biase has been involved with decision making related to Maystar General Contractors going back several years, and amounting to more than $150 million worth of work. I think that residents need to be assured that his conduct did not affect any other tenders."

Di Biase could not immediately be reached Friday evening for comment.

Senior staff rebuked Di Biase months earlier

Months before Craig even began investigating Di Biase, top officials in Vaughan issued a sternly worded confidential memo rebuking their deputy mayor.

The memo, obtained by CBC News, was written by Vaughan's city solicitor and treasurer last June after Di Biase voiced a string of objections to how certain construction companies — but not others, including Maystar — were deemed qualified to bid for two projects.

"Politicians should take a hands-off approach to specific contract award decisions," says the memo, citing principles articulated by an Ontario Superior Court judge who conducted an inquiry into certain City of Toronto contracts a decade ago.

"The integrity of the process and quality of the outcome can be compromised when the decision-making becomes politicized."

The confidential memo, dated June 12, is addressed to Vaughan's mayor and councillors from city solicitor MaryLee Farrugia and treasurer John Henry.

As of Feb. 19, Farrugia no longer has her job at the city.

CBC News has also learned that York Region Police are keeping an eye on the integrity commissioner's investigation but have not launched a formal probe of their own. 


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 and is currently deputy mayor.

During the previous council term, he voted or participated in debates on at least five matters affecting Maystar General Contractors, the company he is alleged to have been "exercising influence or assisting" behind the scenes at city hall, according to a report from Vaughan's integrity commissioner.

  • 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. 

Source: CBC research