Ford's former top staffer pressed OPP to issue statement about custom van
By JILL MAHONEY, JEFF GRAY
Friday, July 5, 2019 Print Edition, Page A1
Doug Ford's former chief of staff pressed the Ontario Provincial Police to publicly clear the air about a controversy over a proposed van retrofit for the Premier, an internal e-mail shows.
Dean French e-mailed a high-ranking OPP officer in late March to suggest the force release a statement explaining that he had never said the cost of customizing the vehicle should be "kept off the books."
The Globe and Mail obtained the e-mail, which is partly redacted, through Freedom of Information legislation.
"I believe the air on this matter should be cleared. Therefore, I am writing to inquire what your office is doing to dispel the misinformation which was published from the offices of the OPP by the former deputy commissioner, and whether your office intends to issue a public release setting the record straight," Mr. French wrote on March 28 to Chief Superintendent Chuck Cox, who was acting deputy commissioner at the time Mr. French added that he spoke directly with two OPP officers who backed up his contention that he never made such a request. The OPP - which did not issue a public statement on the matter - declined comment on Thursday.
Critics say the e-mail from Mr.French is further evidence of the Premier's Office's lack of respect for the division between politics and policing.
Mr. French's e-mail came eight days after the province's Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake singled him out for appearing to be "rooting" for the Premier's friend, Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner, to be hired as the next head of the OPP. Mr. Wake also said Mr. French was in frequent contact with the-then cabinet secretary, whose office was co-ordinating the recruitment process. (Supt. Taverner eventually withdrew his application.)
A spokesman for Mr. Ford, Richard Clark, said the Premier's Office has always maintained that the comments attributed to Mr. French were a "complete fabrication." He said the van proposal was not pursued after initial inquiries determined it was not cost efficient.
Mr. French did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. French left his job abruptly last month in the midst of an outcry over patronage appointments. In a letter released by the Liberals on Thursday, Mr. Wake said that he could review appointments for possible violations of conflict-of-interest rules, but that he is only allowed to report any findings about a staffer such as Mr. French to the Premier.
The origin of Mr. French's purported comments about keeping the proposed van retrofitting costs secret was a December letter by former OPP deputy commissioner Brad Blair, who became a fierce critic of Mr. Ford after his bid to head the provincial police was unsuccessful. Mr. Blair alleged that Mr. French had asked the OPP to purchase a van to transport Mr. Ford and have it modified to specifications provided by the Premier's Office while ensuring the costs be "kept off the books." Mr. Blair later revealed the proposed retrofit carried a $50,000 price tag.
In his e-mail to Chief Supt.
Cox, Mr. French says Mr. Blair distributed a "significant amount of misinformation." Mr. French outlined how he spoke directly to two OPP officers who were purported witnesses to the alleged comments and that they "categorically deny" hearing him or anyone else suggest the van expenses be kept secret.
"From my perspective, it is utterly unacceptable these false, unsubstantiated and damaging statements remain uncorrected and on the public record," Mr.French wrote.
Mr. French sent the e-mail the day after news broke that Mr.Blair had filed a defamation and libel lawsuit against Mr. Ford. The Premier suggested that Mr. Blair, who complained that he was overlooked for the top OPP job because of alleged political interference, had violated the Police Services Act by going public. Mr.
Ford later denied Mr. Blair's claims in a statement of defence.
Mr. French began his e-mail by thanking Chief Supt. Cox for reaching out about the Premier's security detail, which the two men were going to meet to discuss, according to other e-mails, saying: "Your effort in this regard is very much personally appreciated by both the Premier and I."
Near the end of the e-mail, Mr.French told Chief Supt. Cox that his request should not be construed as direction from him or Mr. Ford.
"If there are reasons you feel you cannot undo this misinformation then I completely understand. I want to be clear this is in no way intended as direction from me or the Premier, rather an attempt to correct misinformation that emanated from your office."
NDP MPP Taras Natyshak called Mr. French's e-mail more evidence that the Premier's Office believed it could exert its will upon the OPP. "It doesn't surprise me, but it is incredibly disturbing. It seems like an attempt to intimidate the police to whitewash the story" around the Premier's van.
Mr. Blair's lawyer, Julian Falconer, called Mr. French's e-mail "troubling" and "ominous," saying it is evidence of "unbridled political interference."
"It is thoroughly inappropriate for the Premier's staff, much less his chief of staff, to be communicating with officers of the OPP in this fashion," he said.
Mr. Falconer said the e-mail shows that Mr. Ford and Mr.French were emboldened after the province's Ombudsman and Integrity Commissioner declined to take action against them. Ombudsman Paul Dubé refused to intervene in Mr. Blair's dismissal - something Mr. Falconer is challenging on behalf of his client in court. Mr. Wake's March 20 e-mail relating to Supt. Taverner's hiring called the process "flawed," but did not find the Premier had violated any rules.
Meanwhile, interim Liberal leader John Fraser raised new concerns on Thursday after he asked the Integrity Commissioner to review all provincial appointments in the wake of Mr.
French's departure, after it was revealed that several people with personal links to him had gotten government appointments.
Mr. Fraser, who released the letter from Mr. Wake outlining limitations on how he can report his conclusions, said the Premier needs to call in the commissioner to investigate and pledge to make any findings public. "What the Premier needs to do is he needs to raise the bar," he said. "And the only way he's going to do that is by clearing the air."
Dean French resigned as chief of staff to Ontario Premier Doug Ford last month amid public outcry over patronage appointments made by the government.
CHRIS DONOVAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL