Supt. Ron Taverner, a close confidant of the Ford family for years, has decided to withdraw his name for the top OPP job “to protect the integrity of rank and file police officers given the controversy surrounding my appointment.”
“This decision is not an easy one for me to make,” Supt. Taverner said in a letter to Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Sylvia Jones, which was released by the government late Wednesday.
In a statement circulated Thursday morning, lawyer Julian Falconer, acting for former OPP deputy commissioner Brad Blair, said his client considers the withdrawal by the Toronto Police Superintendent as a vindication
On Monday, March 4, Deputy OPP Commissioner Brad Blair was fired by the Ford government from his position as second-in-command of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).
This article takes an in-depth look at the events leading up to the appointment of Doug Ford buddy, Supt. Ron Taverner, as head of the OPP and his subsequent withdrawl. It also examines the central role that Dean French, chief of staff to Premier Ford, appears to have had in the appointment process.
The questionable public appointments of Gavin Tighe, the Ford’s family lawyer, and Ian Todd, whose last job was as tour director for Ford’s 2018 campaign, are also examined in detail.
The article raises crucial questions about the growing influence of political staffers and appointees in the Ontario Government that are first and foremost Ford family loyalists and who have little use for the governing practices respected by all past Ontario governments.
In the past, all governments respected the fact that law enforcement in Ontario should be not be directed for partisan reasons by the Premier, Ministers or political staff. The firing of Deputy Blair would seem to confirm that the Ford government intends to remake the OPP as a tool to be used for its own partisan objectives.
Deputy Blair fired
As stated above, Deputy OPP Commissioner Brad Blair was fired from his position as second-in-command of the OPP on March 4. Blair had gone to court to have Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé investigate the appointment of Ford buddy Ron Taverner to the top OPP job.
Meanwhile, an independent ethics investigation by Ontario Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake continues into political interference in Taverner’s appointment. Before he withdrew his name, Taverner’s appointment was on hold pending results of the probe.
Ontario Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones said the decision to fire Blair over the release of “confidential private information for his own personal gain” was made by her Deputy Minister Mario Di Tommaso.
The implication of Ms. Jones’ statement was that the firing was strictly a bureaucratic affair with no input by the political side of the government.
However, whether the firing was initiated by Deputy Di Tommaso, Minister Jones, the Premier or staff in the Premier’s Office, is a moot point. Di Tommaso was on the OPP Commissioner hiring committee and has a long-standing relationship with Premier Ford and with Mr. Taverner. Di Tommaso was also Taverner’s boss at the Toronto police force. In other words, the firing was done by Ford loyalists, whether on the political side of the government or in the Ontario Public Service.
Here is further background to the dramatic firing.
On February 26, the Toronto Star reported that Ford Chief of Staff Dean French had been interviewed by Integrity Commissioner Wake as part of his investigation of allegations of political interference in the appointment of Taverner as OPP commissioner.
The significance of Wake’s interview with French flows from the fact that documents filed by Blair’s lawyer Falconer, show that French and Steve Orsini (then head of the public service), along with deputy minister Di Tommaso (again, Taverner’s former boss in the Toronto police force), conducted the OPP job interviews.
Dubé has claimed that it is beyond his jurisdiction to investigate the Taverner appointment. Integrity Commissioner Wake’s separate inquiry was triggered by a complaint from the opposition New Democrats that the Member’s Integrity Act had been violated.
The government has insisted all along that Taverner, a 72-year-old Ford friend, was selected by an “independent” hiring committee that had nothing to do with the premier.
However, the reality appears to be far different.
A Nov. 15 email to Blair from Odgers Berndtson, the executive search firm handling the hiring, confirmed that chief of staff French was on the interview panel.
“This time around you’ll be meeting with Steve Orsini, Dean French and Mario Di Tommaso,” Odgers Berndtson project manager Sue Mahon wrote to the OPP deputy commissioner.
In addition to the hiring committee being blatantly stacked in Taverner’s favour, requirements for the OPP job were mysteriously downgraded to clear the way for Taverner, who as a mid-level OPP superintendent, didn’t qualify for the job under the old rules.
Why go to such lengths to make a man with no qualifications the head of OPP?
Loyalty pure and simple. During the Rob Ford mayoralty years, out in the Fords’ Etobicoke backyard, Taverner was in charge at 23 Division and could be counted on to make sure that Mayor Ford got home safe and sound when he was too inebriated to drive.
That’s it. The 72 yr. old appears to have no other qualifications for the top OPP job other than loyalty to the Ford family.
And the problem with loyalty being the primary factor in choosing who gets the top job in the OPP can be illustrated by something that happened only a year ago when David Livingston, a chief of staff to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, was found guilty on a criminal charge of tampering with a government computer – a charge based on an OPP investigation of the premier’s office.
If the head of the OPP at the time had been an old friend of Mr. McGuinty’s, would such an investigation ever have happened? And even if it did, would the public have had any confidence in the process?
This is the conflict to which Mr. Ford seems oblivious. With Taverner heading the OPP, the OPP would be unable to credibly lead an investigation into any matter involving the Ontario Government or the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. His appointment would also deprive the public of the assurance that the force was carrying out investigations independent of political direction from the Premier and staffers in his office.
Dean French – the most powerful unelected official in the Ford government
One of the more disturbing aspects of the Taverner appointment is that it is consistent with other insider reports related to the Premier’s right-hand man and former campaign manager, Dean French. French is another old Ford pal from Etobicoke who has been earning a reputation amongst Ontario PC’s as a brutal political enforcer at Queen’s Park.
After Mr. Ford led his Progressive Conservatives to victory last June, he named French, Chief of Staff, the top staff position in the Premier’s Office.
Jenni Byrne, a former top Harper advisor, was appointed to the number two spot, Principal Secretary.
According to a recent Star report, it was French who instructed underlings “to direct police to raid outlaw cannabis shops [and] to get video of ‘people in handcuffs’” the day after legalization came into force, to spin some good PR for his boss. The Star says that “one staffer who questioned the directive was subsequently fired.”
As for Byrne, she is no softie. Once the most feared political staffer in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa, she is still resented for how she treated people during her days in the Prime Minister’s Office as Mr. Harper’s chief enforcer.
According to the Globe, a common assumption was that Ms. Byrne – with considerable government experience and a reputation for enforcing discipline – would be in charge of operations within the government. Mr. French, an Etobicoke businessman who had not been prominent in political circles for nearly two decades, would presumably serve as the Premier’s link with the PC Party.
But it didn’t work out that way. Ms. Byrne turned out to be no match for Dean French.
Mr. French quickly established himself as the most powerful staffer in the government. Not only was he perpetually at Mr. Ford’s side, and clearly in charge of some of the government’s top policy files, but he also made it clear to political staff across the government that they answered to him.
And Mr. Ford allowed Mr. French to take roles – participating in cabinet meetings and the powerful “priorities and planning” committee of a few senior ministers, sitting at the front of caucus meetings – that made it clear that when you were talking to Dean French, you were talking to Doug Ford.
Within a relatively short period following her appointment, Byrne was effectively sidelined on most major government initiatives.
Apparently, there was some effort late last year by provincial ministers and staffers to test whether Mr. Ford would sideline French. Not long after, it became clear that a Premier known for loyalty to friends had no intention of doing so. Ms. Byrne soon fled to the Ontario Energy Board.
Ms. Byrne’s departure is disturbing in what it tells us about how an internal power struggle between two very tough players at the very top of the Ford government, played out. The long-time Ford loyalist – not the political pro – prevailed.
Given French’s undisputed power throughout the government, it is clear that French was on the OPP Commissioner hiring committee to make sure Ford buddy Taverner got the top job. In other words, the fix was in from the beginning and anyone who got in the Ford loyalists’ way, was going to be punished.
Deputy Commissioner Blair got in the way of the Ford loyalists big-time with his court action. On March 4, he got the old heave-ho.
And there have been other blatant patronage appointments where loyalty to the Ford family appears to be the only factor in the appointment.
For example, Doug Ford has given his family’s lawyer, Gavin Tighe, a $667,000 government contract with the Public Accountants Council,” a body whose job, according to its website, is to “ensure that public accounting in Ontario is practised in accordance with internationally respected public accounting standards”).
Tighe represented the premier’s late brother, Rob Ford, when he was sued for defamation and again when he was sued for his alleged involvement in the jailhouse beating of his sister’s former spouse.
In a recent article on reputed Russian mob boss Boris Birshtein by Mark MacKinnon in the Globe and Mail, MacKinnon wrote that while researching his article, he received a phone call from Mr. Tighe who informed Mr. MacKinnon – shortly after Tighe’s new government appointment to the Accountants Council – that he was now representing Mr. Birshtein. He asked MacKinnon to stop trying to contact Mr. Birshtein, and instead to send him any questions he might have.
MacKinnon then e-mailed Tighe a list of 37 questions about Mr. Birshtein, along with a request for an interview with the businessman. The four-page reply by Mr. Tighe arrived replete with denials and threats of legal action: “Any and all allegations of impropriety, criminality or association with criminals are vehemently denied. Our client is a law abiding businessperson with no criminal record or history,” it reads in part. Added Mr. Tighe, “He is not obligated to provide an interview to you or any other journalist.”
Ford also rewarded one of his closest campaign cronies, Ian Todd, with a plum patronage posting to be Ontario’s new trade representative in the U.S. Todd’s most recent job was as head of tour for Ford’s 2018 campaign.
Todd’s annual salary is $350,000 a year — $75,000 more than the annual pay of his predecessor, Monique Smith, a former Liberal cabinet minister appointed by ex-premier Kathleen Wynne.
In fact, Todd’s salary will far exceed the salary of the Canadian ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, whose pay band is $248,000 to $292,000 annually.
Make no mistake, MacNaughton’s ambassadorship was also a patronage appointment. He is a long time Liberal who ran the Ontario campaign for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and served as chief of staff for ex-premier Dalton McGuinty. But as a senior partner in the influential government relations firm, Strategy Corp., MacNaughton had deep corporate contacts throughout North America and by all accounts, considerable political acumen.
In contrast, neither Todd nor his Liberal predecessor, Smith, have ever distinguished themselves as envoy material — never mind meriting more money than a national ambassador.
The subtext to many of the Ford Government’s initiatives is an indifference to the governing norms accepted by previous governments and the expansion of the power of the Premier’s Office. This manifests itself in the Ford Government’s tendency to rationalize its refusal to adhere to past governing norms by framing its actions as expressions of the will of “the people”. In other words, since “the people” elected us, we can do anything we want.
The key issue raised in this article is this. While we may think our democratic institutions are strong, in the end institutions consist of people and these institutions fulfill their roles only as long as the people who have authority over them respect their intended purpose. Particularly in our Westminster form of democracy, the rule of law depends not just on what is written down, but also on the behavior and loyalties of those who interpret and enforce the law.
If the people in positions of political power don’t regard themselves as servants of the law first and political partisans or family loyalists second, if they won’t subordinate their partisan political goals (i.e. to stay in power and serve the “boss”) to their duty to respect and obey the norms of democratic institutions, laws become meaningless and only formal power matters.
What we’re seeing in Ontario appears to be the beginnings of an infiltration of our democratic institutions by fierce partisans whose loyalty is to the Ontario PC Party and/or the Ford family, not the rule of law. That this is the trendline is clear, although how far advanced is unclear.
Admittedly, there are partisan hacks in all three major provincial political parties, as there are hacks in all walks of life. Moreover, all three Ontario parties when in government have appointed party loyalists to positions that they were not particularly qualified for.
That said, it is also true that the three major parties in Ontario are structurally different. The Ontario Liberal and New Democratic parties are backed by a loose coalition of interest groups (labour, environmental, etc.) and many Premier’s Office and Ministerial staff in Liberal and NDP governments come from labour, environmental, and consumer groups and share these groups’ policy goals. They also expect to go back to them after they leave government and feel some pressure to have pushed these groups’ agenda during their time in government. In other words, many senior staffers in Liberal and NDP governments have reasons for being in government other than just getting their party re-elected by any means necessary.
In contrast, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party under Doug Ford is dominated more and more by “Ford Nation” types with little interest in public policy matters and the substance of governing more generally.
Therefore, the political staff who are most influential in the Ford government are, to a far greater degree than key political staff in past governments, apparatchiks – political loyalists who can be counted on not to stray too far from the party line and who are first and foremost loyal to the Ontario PC Party and/or the Ford family.
Ontarians should find the appointment of Taverner and similar appointments, deeply unsettling. A government which feels it can reject the governing norms of past governments and do anything it wants because it got 40% of the vote, needs to be told as forcefully as possible that the governing norms respected by all previous governments apply to them, too.
Access Premium Canada Fact Check Content by Subscribing or by Downloading Individual Premium Posts!