Ombudsman blasts province for bypassing him

Jun 20, 2007 05:16 PM

Chinta Puxley
Canadian press - posted Toronto Star

The Liberal government is circumventing the ombudsman's office and squandering tax dollars by hiring outsiders to investigate public complaints because it wants to maintain control over the investigations, the province's ombudsman said Wednesday.

Andre Marin said the government is "queasy" about referring public complaints to his office – even when the province finds itself in a conflict of interest as it does with a current set of complaints against Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino.

Community Safety Minister Monte Kwinter has hired an outside lawyer to investigate whether Fantino breached the province's Police Services Act when he wrote an email to politicians in Caledonia, Ont., suggesting they were encouraging divisive rallies against the policing of the ongoing aboriginal occupation there.

The government could have asked him to investigate the complaint, Marin said, but instead often chooses to hire outsiders so it can dictate the scope of any investigation and retain some control over the results.

"You don't have that when you come to the ombudsman's office," Marin said in an interview. "You don't know where the ball's going to land because we don't accept scripted mandates.

"The government ... wants to be in the driver seat. From the government's perspective, the risk is much more contained when you go out and hire a contractor."

This method of investigation costs taxpayers more because the province shells out cash to contractors rather than using the existing resources of his office, Marin said.

"No doubt the office of the ombudsman is the most institutionally independent, most cost-effective investigative body around," he said.

"We have a proven track record, so why not go to the ombudsman? The government is queasy in these kinds of cases to relinquish control over the issue."

Kwinter said the Police Services Act dictates that his office handle any complaints against the commissioner, and he's chosen to seek outside advice because the email sent in April presents a conflict of interest for members of his staff.

In the email – which was copied to senior bureaucrats and staff in Kwinter's office – Fantino suggested he would back any lawsuit brought against the town of Caledonia and would not recommend that provincial police renew their contract to police the town if any of his officers were injured.

The email, which was interpreted as a "threat" by Haldimand County Mayor Marie Trainer, prompted several formal complaints to Kwinter's office, sparking the investigation.

"I'm just getting advice," Kwinter said. "I have confidence in the commissioner, and unless I hear ... a valid reason that I should be concerned, I'll have to deal with that. I will make the decision but I want to make sure I have all of the facts."

Kwinter's office would not disclose how much the government is paying lawyer Rod McLeod for his advice, saying it falls under the protection of solicitor-client privilege.

But critics said they have more faith in the judgment of the ombudsman than in someone who is hired and paid by the government.

Conservative Leader John Tory said if the government finds itself in a conflict of interest investigating complaints like those prompted by Fantino's email, the matter should be referred to the ombudsman.

"Any time you can, you should be using an office that you set up – namely the ombudsman, who is objective," Tory said. "You have to ask yourself when the government sends these things somewhere else, what other agenda do we have going?"

Hiring outsiders to investigate public complaints is a ``regrettably widespread practice," said New Democrat Peter Kormos. The Liberals could have broken with tradition and referred the Fantino complaints to the ombudsman, he said.

"We have a government that wants to sweep this under the carpet," Kormos said, adding the investigation should have been concluded months ago.

"The concern now spreads beyond Fantino to concern about (Premier Dalton) McGuinty's inability to adequately respond to these serious allegations."