TORONTO — Ontario's integrity commissioner ruled Premier Doug Ford didn't personally influence the decision to appoint his friend Ron Taverner head of the provincial police. But someone very close to him — chief of staff Dean French — was clearly rooting for Taverner, the commissioner's report said.
French has known the premier since 1995, when he volunteered on the campaign to get Ford's father elected as an MPP, according to Toronto Life.
He's been in the news frequently since Ford was elected premier. The senior staffer allegedly directed employees to tell police to raid cannabis dispensaries on legalization day. French also allegedly called the head of Ontario Power Generation's board to have a political rival fired.
French's text messages with the province's top bureaucrat, Steve Orsini, were the "most disconcerting" evidence found while investigating Taverner's appointment as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake said in his final report on the matter.
"Anyone examining these messages would have serious doubts as to the fairness of the process to the other candidates."
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Opposition MPPs requested an investigation after it was announced that Taverner would be the OPP's next commissioner. Taverner, a Toronto police superintendent, ultimately withdrew from consideration for the job.
Ford was cleared of wrongdoing. Wake found that he didn't breach the Members' Integrity Act, the law that sets out conflict of interest rules for MPPs. But French is on staff — he's not elected. So it doesn't apply to him.
In his interview with Wake, French admitted that he told Orsini, the secretary of the cabinet and the province's top bureaucrat, to consider Taverner for the job. Throughout the selection process, Orsini kept French updated on Taverner's status with text messages.
Wake's opinion is that there's "nothing necessarily sinister" about someone from the premier's office being involved in an appointment. But given the importance of the OPP, and that the OPP often investigates sitting governments, there ought to be an established process for choosing a commissioner, Wake wrote.
Here is a detailed breakdown of the role French played in Taverner's appointment.
1. The $270,000-a-year cannabis store job
Both Ford and French told Wake they approached Taverner about a position at the Ontario Cannabis Store in August 2018. Orsini said the premier's office wanted Taverner to be offered an annual salary of $270,000 plus a 10 per cent bonus.
Orsini said French ordered him to arrange a job for Taverner at the OCS. French said he only "recommended" the police officer for the position.
Taverner declined the job because, he told Wake, he couldn't get his head around "not being a cop."
2. French recommends Taverner for OPP commissioner
In his interview, French told Wake that both he and the premier asked Orsini to consider Taverner for OPP commissioner.
"I definitely recommended it," French said. "Just like I recommended Ron Taverner for Ontario Cannabis Store, I recommended he be considered."
He didn't recommend anyone else, saying Taverner was the only officer he knew with a strong reputation. Plus, "the Premier held him in high regard."
3. New deputy minister is Taverner's former boss
One of the reasons why there were questions about Taverner's appointment is because his former boss Mario Di Tommaso sat on the three-person selection committee.
Di Tommaso was on the committee because he's deputy minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. But he didn't land that job until, according to Orsini's interview, French suggested the previous deputy minister be replaced.
Former deputy minister Matt Torigian told Wake that Orsini told him in a September meeting to think about "a career change" because French didn't have confidence in him.
French confirmed he asked Orsini to reconsider if Torigian was the "right fit for government."
The premier, on the other hand, "honestly appeared to have difficulty recalling who Mr. Torigian was," Wake wrote in his report.
Torigian found new employment and left his job on Oct. 22, 2018.
In his interview with Wake, Torigian "vehemently" denied there were issues with his performance. And the minister who Torigian actually worked with, Michael Tibollo, said he was shocked when his "dedicated" deputy minister resigned. Tibollo said there were no issues with Torigian's performance.
Torigian said Orsini, the secretary, said he was being pressured to hire "a friend of the Fords" — either Taverner or one other person, to replace him as deputy minister.
"Mr. Torigian indicated that the Secretary used the term 'dangle the OPP Commissioner' and that it was very clear to him at that time that the Secretary meant that he could use the OPP Commissioner position as an option so that he did not have to hire Mr. Taverner as the Deputy Minister of Community Safety," Wake's report said.
4. The job requirements change
Controversy around Taverner's appointment snowballed when iPolitics reported he didn't meet the job's requirements when it was first posted Oct. 22, 2018. The job description asked for applicants who were a deputy police chief or higher, or an assistant commissioner or higher. On Oct. 24, that stipulation changed.
Orsini said that French called him on Oct. 23, 2018, to ask why the requirements were "so restrictive."
"I said, 'I don't know. I hadn't even read them.' And, he asked, 'Well, can they be changed?' Orsini told Wake in his interview.
French denied this. He said it was Orsini who raised issues with the job's requirements.
I recall the Secretary telling me that he suspected that Mr. Taverner called Mr. French to notify him that he would not be able to apply to the job with the rank requirement.Executive assistant to Steve Orsini
Orsini's assistant backed up his version of events.
"I recall the Secretary telling me that he suspected that Mr. Taverner called Mr. French to notify him that he would not be able to apply to the job with the rank requirement."
The integrity commissioner concluded that the initial rank requirement was simply an error. The job was first posted with the same requirements it had in 2014, and the lower requirements matched what had been asked of candidates in years prior.
5. French asks to be on interview panel
Two panels of bureaucrats, including Orsini, approved a short-list of candidates, which included Taverner, on Nov. 9. They also approved two panels to interview the candidates: Di Tommaso was to sit in on first and second-round interviews; French would sit on the panel for second interviews.
French told Wake that he requested this.
6. Taverner makes round one
Di Tommaso and one other panellist chose the candidates who would go to second interviews. They were two internal OPP candidates and Taverner, who had never served on the provincial force.
7. The 'disconcerting' text messages begin
Orsini shot French a text to let him know Taverner made it on the short list.
In text messages entered as evidence for the integrity commissioner's investigation, former secretary of the cabinet Steve Orsini updates the premier's chief of staff Dean French on the appointment process. Their texts are reproduced here verbatim. (GIF: TEXTINGSTORY.COM)
8. The 'disconcerting' text messages continue
Orsini sent French another update on Nov. 13.
Steve Orsini let Dean French know Ron Taverner had made it through the first round of interviews for the Ontario Provincial Police's top job by text message.
9. French recuses himself
On Nov. 19, one day before second interviews were scheduled, French emailed Orsini to tell him he wouldn't sit on the panel after all.
"I have always believed in the integrity of having a separate committee of talented individuals meet with candidates, and to provide Cabinet with their professional opinion on who best should be the new commissioner of the OPP," French wrote.
In their interviews, French and Orsini disagreed on the reason this happened.
But Wake wrote in his report that "the point is that the Secretary believed that Mr. French had a sufficiently close relationship with Mr. Taverner that he had to recuse himself."
10. Orsini gives French another heads up
On the same day second interviews were conducted, Orsini texted French again to let him know Taverner would be offered the position. At that point, Orsini's office had become concerned about the optics of Ford and French being involved in the appointment, Wake said.
French agreed in a text that he and Ford should exclude themselves from the final process.
Steve Orsini tells Dean French he'll arrange for Ron Taverner's appointment as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police to be approved by cabinet. "Walk around" means that Orsini will get approval from cabinet ministers without calling a formal cabinet meeting. PDF refers to Premier Doug Ford.
11. Taverner gets the job
A few days after second interviews, Taverner was informed that he got the job and his appointment would be approved by cabinet that week.
12. Orsini and French discuss strategy
Once Taverner's appointment was announced and the controversy was being discussed by MPPs in question period, Orsini texted French to give him advice.
Once news broke that Ron Taverner was to be appointed head of the provincial police, Steve Orsini texted Dean French, taking issue with the government's messaging around the selection process.
French didn't answer.
Both Orsini and French told Wake in interviews that the selection panel was not independent. Ford, however, told Wake he did believe the panel was independent.
"Because I have all of the faith in the world in Steve Orsini. He's a straight shooter."
Orsini sent French more texts five days later, providing advice on how Taverner should speak to the media. French said he'd assign Chris Froggatt, a vice-chair of Ford's campaign who now runs a government relations firm, to coach Taverner.
Steve Orsini suggests that Ron Taverner needs media training in text messages to Dean French.
13. Taverner postpones
Orsini said he was told by the other members of the interview panel that Taverner wanted to postpone his appointment.
By then, media had covered Taverner's friendship with Ford extensively; Opposition MPPs had asked the integrity commissioner to conduct this investigation.
Orsini and French both said that they met to discuss postponing. Orsini told French he would resign if the government didn't let Taverner delay taking the job.
Orsini said he got the green light from French and asked for an order appointing an interim commissioner to fill the job in the meantime, which had to be signed by two ministers and the premier.
14. Orsini quits
Orsini emails Ford to suggest that Taverner withdraw. He said that if the appointment goes ahead, he'll quit.
... circumstances since the recruitment was completed have called the appointment into question, including Mr. Taverner's own public comments on matters related to police operations. Important questions of integrity and independence have been raised, and it is my best advice that Mr. Taverner withdraw from the position until this matter can be further reviewed by the Integrity Commissioner. This would be befitting of such an accomplished police officer with more than 50 years of experience ...
If you feel that the installation must proceed, it is with a heavy heart that I recommend the appointment of a new Secretary of the Cabinet who will fully support your decisions as the Premier of Ontario. While I am deeply saddened to make this recommendation, I feel it is the only appropriate course of action in the circumstances. I would, of course, be prepared to remain in office of any period you may require to ensure a smooth transition.
[Emphasis added by integrity commissioner.]
The premier refused to sign an order appointing an interim commissioner in Taverner's place because he didn't know what was going on, according to other staff interviewed by Wake.
Less than two hours after Orsini sent that email to Ford, he wrote another email officially resigning his position.
Orsini said French asked him to sleep on it over the weekend.
The premier told Wake he was "shocked" when Orsini quit.
In the end, Wake found that Ford did not act improperly.
The process, however, was "flawed through no actions of Premier Ford."
Wake said the appointment process is made up "on the fly" when a government needs a new OPP commissioner.
"The point is that for a position of this importance and given the sensitivity of the relationship between the government and the police in general, and the OPP Commissioner in particular, there ought to be an established appointment process in place which is independent, transparent and readily activated with predetermined criteria and membership on the selection committee."
The premier said Wake's report was a "complete vindication" for his government.
"The integrity commissioner found that we followed the letter of the law. As we said, over and over again," Ford said at a press conference after the report was released Wednesday.
HuffPost Canada asked the premier's office for French's response to Wake's position that his texts with Orsini were "disconcerting," and how it was a fair process if French was rooting for Taverner.
"The Premier's statement from yesterday stands," spokesman Simon Jefferies said by email Thursday.
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The NDP, though, said the report revealed "shocking and disturbing facts" about how Ford's closest advisors conduct themselves.
"This report makes clear that what was happening in Ford's back rooms was a coordinated attempt by Doug Ford and his chief of staff Dean French to install an ally in a position of power," NDP MPP Taras Natyshak said.
"Anyone who sees this report as an exoneration hasn't read the report."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that Dean French was accused of reaching out to Ontario Power Generation to have the head of its board fired. French allegedly called the head of OPG's board to have executive Alykhan Velshifired.
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