‘Canadians deserve answers’: Opposition to press on with parliamentary probe after Gerald Butts resignation

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A day after the bombshell departure of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s closest adviser, the SNC-Lavalin affair shows no sign of abating as the opposition parties cast his resignation as a sign there may be more to the scandal than initially thought.

The House of Commons justice committee will reconvene today to continue its study of a report that senior members of the Prime Minister’s Office pressured former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to help Quebec-based multinational engineering firm SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution on bribery and fraud charges in relation to contracts in Libya.

Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary and right-hand man, resigned Monday stating definitively that neither he or anyone else in the PMO pressured Wilson-Raybould to direct the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to sign a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) — a legal tool resembling a plea deal — with SNC-Lavalin.

« At all times, I and those around me acted with integrity and a singular focus on the best interests of all Canadians, » Butts said Monday.

Rather than wipe the slate clean, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Butts’ departure « does not in any way settle this matter. In fact, it presents even more questions that must be answered. »

Scheer said the staff changeover is a sign the prime minister is « desperate to keep the truth hidden. »

« Conservatives on the justice committee will continue to demand a thorough and public investigation, and all other options remain on the table, » Scheer said.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, the party’s ethics critic, said Butts’ departure — he calls the former staffer the « architect of the Sunny Ways » Trudeau playbook — could provoke a « political revolution. »

« For Gerry Butts to resign shows how much damage [the scandal] has done inside the Prime Minister’s Office … If Mr. Butts is willing to take a jump for the prime minister, at this point, it shows that they’re in free fall and total damage control, » Angus said in an interview with CBC News Network’s Power & Politics.

« The best thing the prime minister could do to restore public confidence is come into the House and agree to an independent inquiry … or else these questions are going to continue. »

The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing. He has said he told Wilson-Raybould last fall that any decisions on matters involving the director of public prosecutions were hers alone.

The Liberal and opposition members of the justice committee are expected to squabble today over who should be called to testify at the committee and just how wide-reaching the parliamentary probe should be.

At the top of the opposition witness wish list is Butts himself, but also Wilson-Raybould, who resigned from cabinet last week after the Globe and Mail published its initial report.

Wilson-Raybould had been demoted from the high-profile justice portfolio to the Veterans Affairs ministry in January.

Wilson-Raybould has stayed silent, claiming solicitor-client privilege — as attorney general, she was the government’s top lawyer — prevents her from speaking publicly.

She has taken the highly unusual step of retaining Thomas Cromwell, a recently retired Supreme Court justice, as her legal counsel as the scandal enters a new phase.

While the Liberal-controlled justice committee has agreed to study the matter, Liberal MPs defeated an NDP motion that would have compelled Butts and Wilson-Raybould to appear.

Following normal parliamentary procedure with respect to committee planning, members will discuss who they will call to the committee and define the scope of its investigation in private. The opposition parties had demanded these proceedings be held in public, whereas Liberals successfully pushed for closed-door discussions.

The parliamentary probe itself is expected to be televised.

More to come?

Opposition members have pointed to one line of Butts’ resignation statement in particular as an indication that there might be more developments to come.

Butts said, « My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend. It is in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away. »

Not satisfied with a committee study alone, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is calling for a public inquiry into the government’s handling — and allegations of political interference — of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Singh is demanding Trudeau waive solicitor-client privilege to allow his former justice minister to speak freely. Trudeau has said the privilege question is complicated and he is awaiting advice from current Attorney General David Lametti on what he can say in public. He has also said some of the government’s handling of the case is protected by cabinet confidentiality.

Speaking to reporters in B.C. a week out from the Burnaby South byelection in which he is running, Singh said intransigence by Liberal members of the justice committee demands another forum for investigation.

He said a public inquiry is the best way to « get to the bottom of what’s happened. »

« The scandal cuts to the heart of our democracy, » Singh said. « Canadians deserve a government that works for them, not a powerful multinational corporation that has deep ties to the Liberal Party. »

In addition to the committee study, federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is examining the prime minister personally for any potential ethics code violations.

Trudeau loses long-time political ally

​In a tweet Monday, Trudeau said Butts served Canada with « integrity, sage advice and devotion. » He thanked the former staffer for his service and « continued friendship. »

In addition to the political partnership, the prime minister is close friends with Butts — a relationship that dates back to their time as students at McGill University in Montreal where they were members of the campus debating club.

Born in Glace Bay, N.S., a coal-mining town on Cape Breton Island, Butts worked on public policy in Ontario before becoming a senior staffer under former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty at Queen’s Park.

Butts then made the leap to federal politics and helped chart Trudeau’s political future as leader of the Liberal Party and later prime minister.

Trudeau chats with Butts after the Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Feb. 16, 2013. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Praised by his allies as a brilliant mind, and vilified by foes as the political puppet master behind the prime minister, Butts said Monday he is proud of his time as Trudeau’s top adviser.

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Liberals to block opposition attempt to probe SNC-Lavalin affair

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OTTAWA—The Liberal government appears likely to block opposition efforts to probe allegations of political interference in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, while insisting that discussions on the matter with former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould were above board.

Justin Trudeau’s government will not yet waive solicitor-client privilege, which would give Wilson-Raybould latitude to speak about the allegation, nor will it permit a parliamentary committee to proceed with its own investigation, the Star has learned.

Wilson-Raybould has remained silent since the Globe and Mail reported Thursday that senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office pressed her to seek mediation instead of pursuing criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin.

The former justice minister — who was moved from her post in January — has refused to confirm or deny the allegations, saying she is bound by solicitor-client privilege.

A senior government official, speaking to the Star on the condition they not be named, said Saturday that the government will not waive the privilege — as demanded by opposition MPs — because SNC-Lavalin’s potential criminal trial remains before the courts. A second government source confirmed that the potential criminal trial, as well as SNC-Lavalin’s appeal of prosecutors’ denial of a mediation deal, makes waiving privilege unlikely.

Justice Minister David Lametti told CTV’s Question Period that he believes nothing about the affair so far merits an investigation.

“The prime minister has said that these allegations are false. We haven’t had any corroborating evidence there. There hasn’t been anything to my mind that justifies a committee investigation,” said Lametti, who is also on the listed of proposed witnesses.

Lisa Raitt, deputy Conservative leader, said she was “horrified” by Lametti’s claim that he had satisfied himself there was no improper influence based solely on the prime minister’s public statements.

“That’s insane … that’s not upholding the independence of the attorney general’s office,” Raitt said in an interview.

Any hint that of political interference in criminal prosecutions should spark an investigation into “what the hell happened,” she said.

“It’s a serious enough issue that this needs to have clear light on it and we need to understand exactly what happened,” said Raitt, MP for Milton and a lawyer.

She said the Conservatives will seek to pressure the Liberals to agree to the committee hearings, though she conceded the effort will likely be voted down.

Lametti was not available to speak Saturday. His spokesperson, David Taylor, said the minister will appear before the committee if called to testify. Wilson-Raybould, through a spokesperson, said she was unavailable for an interview.

From the initial hours after the allegations broke, Lametti has echoed the prime minister’s denial that no direction was given to Wilson-Raybould on the issue.

“We don’t know what evidence or facts he has. Maybe he has spoken to the people in the PMO. Maybe he has facts such that he is very confident in what he is saying,” said former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant.

“Or he sees this as part of his political role and he doesn’t need to be quasi-judicial and independent,” Bryant said.

The justice minister also serves as Canada’s attorney general. The ministerial guide sets out the two roles for the cabinet post: The justice minister is responsible for federal laws and development of new policies and programs. The attorney general is chief law officer for the federal government and has responsibility to uphold the “Constitution, the rule of law, and respect for the independence of the courts.”

Trudeau has denied “allegations” that PMO officials put pressure on Wilson-Raybould to abandon criminal charges against SNC in favour of what’s called a “deferred prosecution agreement” — a new tool introduced by the Liberals last year that allows corporate wrongdoers to avoid a criminal trial in favour of fines and corporate governance reforms.

Montreal-based engineering company SNC-Lavalin has been facing criminal fraud and corruption charges based on allegations it paid millions in bribes to win government business in Libya between 2001 and 2011. It has argued that the individuals behind the charges have left the company and that punishment to the firm, resulting in a ban on government infrastructure contracts, would result in major job losses in Canada — and Quebec in particular.

Wilson-Raybould was involved in the internal debates about how to deal with the SNC situation last fall, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed Saturday. A government source would not say at what level those discussions were held — whether with Trudeau’s entire cabinet, with a subcommittee, or informally between ministers. It’s not clear who initiated the discussions.

The PMO also confirmed that Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary and close friend, discussed the matter with Wilson-Raybould in December 2018, but said Butts suggested Wilson-Raybould bring it up with Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council and Canada’s top bureaucrat.

The question of undue influence and political interference hinges on the nature of the discussions Wilson-Raybould had on the options for the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

Some discussions are permitted. The Privy Council’s rules for Open and accountable government state the attorney general may consult “cabinet colleagues … in order to fully assess the public policy considerations relevant to specific prosecutorial decisions.”

Craig Forcese, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says that clear political advice is “one thing.”

“But a political executive ‘direction’ to the (attorney general) in a criminal justice matter would exceed” judicial standards and dictate that the attorney general refuse and resign, Forcese said.

“The murk lies where discussions fall short of ‘direction,’” he wrote in a blog post.

Bryant said the involvement of the prime minister’s aides — the very people he said have power over a minister’s political future — in such discussions would not be appropriate.

“It creates the perception and the reality that if she doesn’t do what they tell her to do, then there will be political consequences for her, and that means that you are politicizing the prosecution,” Bryant said in an interview Saturday.

“These are the most political animals in the country, the PMO … They advise the prime minister, who controls the fate of a cabinet minister,” said Bryant, who is now the executive director and general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

With files from The Canadian Press

Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier

Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier

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Costco pharmacies hit with $7.25M fine after probe of money the chain collected from drug companies

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Costco pharmacies have been fined $7.25 million for violating an Ontario kickback regulation designed to keep down the cost of prescription medications.

The fine, quietly posted Friday on a government website, follows a three-year investigation into “advertising services” Costco was alleged to have charged its drug suppliers to get their medications stocked at the retail chain’s stores.

Costco pharmacies have been fined $7.25 million for violating an Ontario kickback regulation designed to keep down the cost of prescription medications.
Costco pharmacies have been fined $7.25 million for violating an Ontario kickback regulation designed to keep down the cost of prescription medications.  (Toronto Star)

It’s illegal in Ontario for drug companies to give direct or indirect incentives — known as rebates — to induce a pharmacy to stock their products. The province has said these kickbacks artificially inflate the price of drugs.

The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care determined that Costco’s acceptance of millions of dollars for advertising services from 2013 to 2015 “violated the prohibition on rebates.”

“The Ministry takes non-compliance with the prohibition on rebates seriously and will continue to assess compliance with the prohibition by manufacturers, wholesalers and pharmacies,” read a notice from the executive officer of Ontario’s public drug programs, who is in charge of enforcing anti-rebate legislation.

In a statement, a Costco spokesperson said its pharmacies “honestly believed at the time that the advertising programs” did not break Ontario’s rebate rules, adding that the company used the money “to reduce dispensing fees and drug mark-ups” for its customers.

“(Costco pharmacies) would never knowingly or intentionally act in a manner which was inconsistent with the laws of Ontario,” the statement said.

The Star first revealed in March 2016 that Costco had been accused of squeezing nearly $1.3 million in unlawful rebates from Ranbaxy, a generic drug company.

At the heart of the allegations was a secretly recorded 2014 phone conversation in which a Costco pharmacy director explains to a Ranbaxy drug sales representative how much the company would have to pay to “greatly reduce the likelihood of somebody eating your business.”

That rep, Tony Gagliese, complained to Ontario’s ministry of health and the pharmacists’ regulatory college, alleging Costco was requiring Ranbaxy to pay “renamed” rebates on its Ontario sales through pricey advertising services in order to circumvent the law. The advertising services included Ranbaxy’s logo being printed in clinic handouts and the Wellness Connection, a magazine published by Costco.

Costco approached the ministry in the summer of 2015 for clarity on whether the payments were appropriate, and suspended charging for its advertising services while it awaited feedback.

In its Friday statement, Costco said it co-operated fully with the government’s investigation and is “pleased” the fine “provides further guidance on the issue of rebates.”

The government’s action is not the first time Costco has been sanctioned for the payments.

At a January 2018 hearing before the Ontario College of Pharmacists, two Costco pharmacy directors — Joseph Hanna and Lawrence Varga — admitted to professional misconduct for soliciting more than $1.2 million in improper advertising services from Ranbaxy. Neither Hanna nor Varga personally pocketed any of the money, Costco said in a statement at the time.

The two pharmacists were each fined $20,000 by the regulator.

As part of that settlement, charges that Hanna and Varga allegedly accepted illegal payments from four other generic drug companies were withdrawn.

Costco said in a statement that the regulatory college’s ruling recognized that Costco pharmacies were “operating in an area of legal uncertainty as it related to the payments.”

In the notice announcing the $7.25-million fine, the province said the penalty “will serve as a guide to the pharmaceutical industry regarding compliance with rebate prohibition.”

But the whistleblower who exposed Costco’s rebate demands said the fine does little to deter other pharmacies from collecting rebates.

“It’s weak. The only thing the government is doing is taking the money back that Costco took,” Gagliese said. “If you want to send a strong message to the whole profession, the executive officer should suspend Costco’s ability to bill” Ontario’s public drug plans.

“That would be a strong message. No one would do it again,” he said.

Jesse McLean is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @jesse_mclean

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MPs call for criminal probe of coerced sterilization cases of Indigenous women

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Two federal MPs are calling for a criminal probe into cases of Indigenous women who say they’re victims of coerced sterilization.

NDP MP Don Davies and Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette called for the criminal probe Thursday after the House of Commons health committee decided to begin a study on the issue.

We are talking about alleged torture and widespread systemic assaults on women — very vulnerable women.– NDP MP Don Davies 

Davies said the federal government needed to either direct the federal prosecutor’s office, known as the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, or the RCMP to probe cases of forced sterilization that have surfaced since the filing of two separate lawsuits.

« We are talking about alleged torture and widespread systemic assaults on women — very vulnerable women, » said Davies, following a hearing on the issue before the House’s health committee.

The committee decided Thursday to launch a study into coerced sterilization which would involve multiple witnesses and lead to a report that would be submitted to Parliament with recommendations.

Davies said he was pleased the committee has finally decided to study the issue, but believes the federal government shouldn’t wait for the committee’s report to trigger a criminal probe into the issue.

« It’s our obligation under international law, and we owe it to the women who have suffered in this country, » Davies said.

Davies said the names of potential victims and perpetrators are already known as a result of existing civil action.

« We know who specifically performed these procedures and how this happened, » he said. « There should be an investigation. »

UN called for criminal probe

The UN Committee Against Torture released a report in December calling on Ottawa to investigate « all allegations of forced or coerced sterilisation » and hold those responsible « accountable. »

The UN report also called on Ottawa to criminalize coerced sterilization, but the federal government has said it wouldn’t amend the Criminal Code to outlaw it, saying existing criminal provisions are enough.

Two separate lawsuits have been filed in Saskatchewan and Alberta seeking class action certification on behalf of women who have claimed to be victims of coerced sterilization.

Maurice Law, an Indigenous-focused law firm with offices in the Prairies and Ontario, filed the first court action in 2017 on behalf of two women. The filing named the Saskatchewan government, the Saskatoon Health Region, medical professionals and the federal government.

Winnipeg Centre Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette supported calls for a criminal probe into coerced sterilization cases. (CBC)

The firm has since received inquiries from more than 100 mostly Indigenous women who say they have suffered from coerced sterilization.

The women are mostly from Saskatchewan. The firm has said it also heard from potential victims in other provinces like Manitoba and Ontario. At least one of the cases stems from 2017 while others range from the 1990s to the early 2000s. 

The historical record shows that coerced and forced sterilization of Indigenous women regularly occurred in Canada throughout the first half of the 1900s.

In Alberta and British Columbia, it was legal to force women deemed to have mental illnesses to undergo forced sterilization up to the 1970s, said Tom Wong, executive director and chief medical officer of public health, during testimony before the committee on Thursday.

Health Canada official says it may not be widespread issue

MP Ouellette said the RCMP needed to look into the contemporary cases.

« That sounds pretty criminal to me. The police force needs to find out what actually occurred, » Ouellette said. « For me, it’s important … that we use the appropriate instruments of the state to make sure that this doesn’t occurred again but we give justice to those who suffered and are still alive today. »

Alisa Lombard of Maurice Law is representing at least 60 women in the lawsuit. Each woman is claiming about $7 million in damages. (Submitted by Alisa Lombard)

Abby Hoffman, assistant deputy minister for Health Canada, said a federal, provincial and territorial task force is being created to study the issue. Hoffman said the first meeting is scheduled for some time in March.

Hoffman told the committee that, at first blush, the data does not seem to show that coerced sterilization is a widespread issue in contemporary Canada, but it may need deeper analysis.

« I can’t say any examination would have suggested from the data that there are anomalies, » Hoffman said. « I am not certain at this point that one would see a pattern in Saskatchewan. »

The Saskatoon Health Region apologized in 2017 for the past coerced sterilization of Indigenous women following an independent report. The report, based on anecdotal evidence, said that Indigenous women felt coerced by doctors, nurses and social workers to undergo sterilization.

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Police probe suspicious death after man’s body found in northwest Calgary hotel – Calgary

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Police are treating a man’s death as suspicious after his body was discovered at a hotel in northwest Calgary on Tuesday morning.

Officers responded to a sudden death call at the Econo Lodge Motel Village near Crowchild Trail and 16 Avenue N.W. at about 6:50 a.m., police said.

No arrests have been made and police said an autopsy has been scheduled for Wednesday.

On Tuesday night, police said officers were still holding the scene as an investigation continues.

Police did not say where in the hotel the body was found.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Deputy OPP commissioner who raised red flags over Taverner appointment has been interviewed in ethics probe

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The deputy OPP commissioner who raised red flags over the appointment of Premier Doug Ford’s close friend Ron Taverner as head of the provincial police force has been interviewed in the ethics probe into the controversial hiring.

Brad Blair was interim commissioner until being demoted for publicly complaining that Taverner’s appointment put the independence of the country’s second-largest police force in jeopardy.

Deputy OPP commissioner Brad Blair, left and Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner. Blair has publicly complained about Taverner’s appointment as OPP commissioner. Taverner has asked his posting be put on hold until a probe into his appointment is complete.
Deputy OPP commissioner Brad Blair, left and Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner. Blair has publicly complained about Taverner’s appointment as OPP commissioner. Taverner has asked his posting be put on hold until a probe into his appointment is complete.  (Emaan)

The interview is significant because of the details Blair revealed in a nine-page letter to the provincial ombudsman Dec. 11, including the claim Ford’s team requested the OPP buy a “large camper-type vehicle” that could be modified and the request be “kept off the books.” Ford’s office denies such a request was made.

Provincial integrity commissioner J. David Wake is now investigating whether there was any political interference in the hiring of Taverner, 72, a Toronto police superintendent who has asked his posting be put on hold until the probe is complete.

The integrity commissioner’s office reached out to Blair for more information as part of the probe.

“He received a summons and participated,” Blair’s lawyer, Julian Falconer, said on Friday.

“The process is confidential, therefore I will not be able to discuss the contents of the examination,” Falconer added, declining further comment.

The integrity commissioner’s probe was prompted by a complaint from New Democrat MPP Kevin Yarde (Brampton North) that Ford may have violated the Members’ Integrity Act when his “long-time friend and ally” was approved as head of the OPP.

Ford has denied any involvement in the Nov. 29 appointment, insisted there is “no better choice” for the job than Taverner, called the concerns raised by Blair “sour grapes” and told a TV news anchor “if I wanted to, I could appoint you OPP commissioner. It’s a political appointment.”

The premier’s office did not reply to a request for comment Friday on whether Ford or his chief of staff Dean French have been interviewed in the integrity commissioner’s investigation.

Blair, who was a runner-up for the commissioner’s post, sounded the alarm a week before Taverner was to be sworn in to the $275,00-a-year job, with his letter asking provincial Ombudsman Paul Dube to probe any “potential political interference” in the hiring process.

Dube declined, saying the matter is outside his jurisdiction, and Blair is mounting a court case aimed at forcing the ombudsman to proceed.

Taverner’s appointment and the van procurement request raises “a legitimate question as to whether the OPP’s integrity has been compromised and whether the public can have confidence in and respect for the OPP going forward,” Blair’s letter stated.

Blair also claimed the decision to name Taverner commissioner was made before a late November cabinet meeting where the decision was said to have been made and that the job posting was changed “without convincing justification,” that the hiring panel had “questionable authority” and that its members changed at the last minute.

In reference to the camper van, the request to keep the modification costs “hidden from the public record” is, at a minimum, a violation of government financial policies, Blair added.

His lawyer, Falconer, has warned the OPP will operate under a cloud of suspicion unless the ombudsman reviews the complaint. It’s not unusual for the OPP to investigate government.

Most recently, the provincial force investigated concerns raised by the Progressive Conservatives about a previous Liberal government deleting documents related to the closure of gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga before the 2011 election. A top Liberal political aide was convicted on a criminal charge and served a jail term last year.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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2 arrested in RCMP raids in Kingston, Ont., related to anti-terrorism probe

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The RCMP have arrested two people following raids on two homes in Kingston, Ont., in what officials are calling an anti-terrorism investigation involving multiple police forces.

CBC News has learned the arrests included a minor and involved both Kingston police and the help of the FBI in the U.S.

The RCMP will hold a news conference Friday in Kingston to update the public on their investigation. 

There’s no word yet on charges or what prompted the investigation. 

In a statement, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said police took action « based on credible information, to ensure public safety. »

« The government of Canada constantly monitors all potential threats and has robust measures in place to address them, » he wrote.

« Canadians can be confident that whenever credible information is obtained about a potential threat, the RCMP, CSIS and other police and security agencies take the appropriate steps to ensure the security of this country and the safety of its citizens. »

A man who lives at one of the homes spoke to CBC News by phone shortly after 7 p.m. ET as he stood outside his residence in the northwest part of the city.

He said he arrived home from Ottawa late Thursday afternoon and was « surprised » to find RCMP at his house. As he spoke, he said the RCMP were inside questioning his wife and children, adding he had not been questioned by police himself. 

Police officers carry evidence from one of the homes. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

« I don’t know why they’re at my home, » he told CBC News, as police officers stood next to him. « The police haven’t told me anything. »

He said that as far as he knew his wife and children were not under arrest, but he hadn’t been able to reach them as their cellphones were off.

Asked if it would surprise him to hear police were conducting a national security investigation, he said « yes. »

The man said he did not know anyone at the other address.

Canadian officials told CBC News the investigation, which included raids on two properties in Kingston, was conducted in co-operation with U.S. authorities. (Frederic Pepin/CBC)

Canadian officials speaking on background told CBC News there was no imminent threat to public safety, and that the situation is contained.

Goodale said the operation has not changed the country’s threat level. It remains at « medium, » where it has hovered since late 2014.

However, the threat was considered serious enough to involve months of investigation, thousands of hours of police work and the use of a Pilatus PC-12 RCMP surveillance plane which has been circling over Kingston at low altitudes in recent weeks for hours on end, creating a great deal of interest from residents due to the noise.

Spokespeople for both the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice referred all questions to the RCMP.

The investigation involved a Pilatus PC-12 RCMP surveillance plane that made headlines recently after it was seen circling over Kingston at low altitudes. (Neil Aird)

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Ethics watchdog mum on probe of Taverner’s controversial appointment to head OPP

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The province’s ethics watchdog is keeping a tight lid on his investigation into the Progressive Conservatives’ controversial appointment of Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner to head the OPP.

Integrity commissioner J. David Wake is looking into whether there was any political interference in the hiring of Taverner, a long-time family friend of Premier Doug Ford.

“The office will not comment on an ongoing inquiry. I can tell you that the inquiry is in progress. I do not have any information on timelines,” Michelle Renaud, a senior adviser in the commissioner’s office, said Tuesday.

The Tories appointed Taverner, 72, as Ontario Provincial Police commissioner last November.

But the posting triggered a firestorm of criticism because of the 51-year police veteran’s close relationship to the Ford family and concerns about the independence of the OPP, Canada’s second-largest force.

NDP MPP Kevin Yarde (Brampton North) formally requested Wake investigate the appointment.

Taverner, who did not return messages from the Star on Tuesday, voluntarily returned to his old job overseeing three police divisions in Etobicoke, while the integrity commissioner’s probe is ongoing.

While Ford insists he had nothing to do with his friend’s hiring, he has indicated he wants him to run the OPP.

“We look forward to having Ron Taverner as the commissioner of the OPP,” the premier said at his most recent new conference on Dec. 18.

“You look at his credentials, speaks for itself, 50 years of policing around the province. Again, he’s a front line police officer … a cop’s cop as they say. And that’s what is desperately needed at the OPP right now,” he said.

“There has never been a more popular police officer in this province than Ron Taverner.”

Ford, who has said he expects Wake’s review to take four to six weeks, added it was “a real shame” that the media “are chasing this gentleman down like I’ve never seen.”

Taverner’s most recent public comments on the controversy came Dec. 15.

“Out of the greatest respect for the brave men and women of the Ontario Provincial Police, I am requesting my appointment as commissioner be postponed,” the superintendent said.

His decision to delay the OPP move was welcomed by critics who questioned why qualification levels for the commissioner’s position were lowered two days after the job was posted.

That last-minute change to the threshold allowed Taverner to meet the criteria.

The New Democrats are hopeful Wake will use his authority to call for an independent public inquiry with open hearings.

Experts have warned Taverner’s appointment could raise questions about the OPP’s ability to conduct investigations into the provincial government — as the force did into deleted documents related to a previous Liberal administration’s closure of two gas-fired power plants.

That probe resulted in criminal charges and a conviction against a top political staffer.

Questions about potential conflicts of interest would always linger with Taverner as commissioner, retired RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson told the Star last month.

“Every investigation of the government is going to be tarred,” he added. “It just sounds like a mess.”

OPP Deputy Commissioner Brad Blair, who applied for the commissioner’s job, has also asked for a review of Taverner’s appointment and any “potential political interference.”

Blair is headed to court to force Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé to investigate the hiring.

Dubé’s office has declined to do so, insisting it is beyond his jurisdiction. Blair was serving as interim commissioner after the retirement of commissioner Vince Hawkes last fall. He has since been replaced by Gary Couture.

In Blair’s complaint to the ombudsman, he alleged the premier’s chief of staff, Dean French, asked the OPP “to purchase a large camper-type vehicle … modified to specifications the premier’s office would provide us” and keep the costs “off the books.”

The premier called that “a baseless claim without merit.”

“That’s just not accurate whatsoever. I asked if they had a used one,” Ford said last month.

He did not say why he needed the van or why his office allegedly wanted the costs of customizing the vehicle kept hidden.

Like all premiers, Ford is currently ferried in an OPP SUV.

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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Ford government’s new ‘audit and accountability’ committee will not probe why Ontario’s chief accountant quit

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The Progressive Conservative government has struck a new “audit and accountability” cabinet committee to increase the scrutiny on spending.

But Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy said the panel of cabinet ministers will not examine why the province’s chief accountant quit after refusing to sign off on the public accounts due to concerns about the inflated deficit.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy said a panel of cabinet ministers will not examine why the province’s chief accountant quit in September. “No, this committee won’t be looking at that,” he said Dec. 11, 2018.
Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy said a panel of cabinet ministers will not examine why the province’s chief accountant quit in September. “No, this committee won’t be looking at that,” he said Dec. 11, 2018.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

Bethlenfalvy, a Bay Street veteran, said Tuesday the committee “is designed to meet our fiduciary responsibilities.”

Asked if the new panel would try to determine why provincial controller Cindy Veinot resigned Sept. 27 after declining to approve what the government claimed was then a $15-billion deficit, he said: “No, this committee won’t be looking at that.”

“It’ll be taking the auditor general’s report and acting upon it and making sure ministries follow up so that we have great accountability,” the minister said.

As first disclosed by the Star, Veinot, a civil servant, left because she “did not agree with accounting decisions made by the current government.”

“I believe that the consolidated financial statements of the province of Ontario as issued … materially overstate the deficit of the province for the year,” she said in an unsolicited submission to the legislative “transparency” committee examining the province’s books.

Because Tory MPPs on that select committee have blocked Veinot from testifying as a witness, New Democrat Sandy Shaw said she has little hope for any new cabinet accountability initiative.

“It has been an abysmal failure,” said Shaw (Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas), who sits on the committee.

“They talk a good a game … but their actions belie how transparent they’re really willing to be.”

Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said the new cabinet panel should begin its work by interviewing Veinot.

“It’s an audit committee and the public accounts they submitted don’t actually have the top accountant in the government’s signature on it. That’s the first thing they should investigate. They should talk to her,” said Fraser.

“She had very serious concerns about the government’s misrepresentation of the deficit.”

Veinot, who has also recommended an audit committee be formed, broke with the government over whether $11 billion in public money in co-sponsored Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union Pension Plan and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan should be counted as an asset on the books.

She contends they are.

Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk — along with her predecessors — used to count them as such. But Lysyk changed her mind in 2015 and no longer does.

The new government sides with the auditor general, who praised the administration for its audit committee.

That decision has ballooned the deficit by $5 billion. It now sits at $14.5 billion, though the financial accountability officer said Monday it is at least $1.2 billion lower.

Lysyk, for her part, welcomed Bethlenfalvy’s new initiative.

“I am encouraged to hear that one of the responsibilities of the audit and accountability committee will be to monitor the timely implementation of the recommendations made by my office, resulting from our value-for-money and other audit work,” she said.

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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Sergeant-at-arms, clerk at B.C. Legislature on leave amid criminal probe

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Two key officials at the British Columbia Legislature have been placed on indefinite leave over what an official says is a criminal investigation.

NDP House Leader Mike Farnworth told the legislature that both Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were being put on leave while an investigation took place. 

Alan Mullen, a special adviser to the Speaker of the legislature, says there is an active investigation by the RCMP and both men are on paid leave. 

« It would be inappropriate this time to say any more because we do not want to jeopardize any investigation of the RCMP that’s ongoing, » he said.

Mullen also said the house leaders of all three political parties in the legislature agreed on the decision.  

At a news conference that had been arranged earlier in the day for an unrelated matter, B.C. Premier John Horgan was peppered with questions about Lenz and Craig.

The premier said he was briefed about the « shocking » situation on Monday, but said he didn’t know any further details about the investigation.

‘Very disappointing’

As he left his office with personal belongings in hand, James told reporters he did not know what the investigation was about, that he was informed he was being placed on leave as Farnworth told the legislature, and was obtaining legal counsel. 

« Somebody knows something, and I think out of the fairness principle [we] should be informed before we’re placed on administrative leave, exactly what it involves, » he said. 

« I think it’s very unfair, and very unfortunate, and very disappointing. » 

James, right, and Lenz, shown here in an earlier photo, are on leave pending a criminal investigation by the RCMP. (CBC)

James and Lenz walked out of the legislature separately and left the parking lot together in a vehicle driven by Lenz.

The clerk of the house gives non-partisan advice to the Speaker and can be consulted on procedural matters, as well maintaining a record of all the legislature’s proceedings.

The sergeant-at-arms is responsible for maintaining order in the legislative chamber and other areas used for the business of the house.

With files from Tanya Fletcher and The Canadian Press

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