Cleaner dirt

A Rob Ford-related drug trial seemed sort of inevitable. But this isn't the one you imagined.


The undercover officer was charmingly Canadian.

“I’m sorry,” he says he told dry cleaner Jamshid Bahrami about the rolling papers that fell from the pocket of the shirt he’d dropped off. “It’s embarrassing.”

The officer, Detective Ross Fernandes, had deliberately placed them there in the hope of spurring a “drug conversation.” He’d been informed by his superiors that the middle-aged Bahrami was a suspected marijuana trafficker and had been directed to buy drugs from him.

But as Fernandes advised a court in late March, that’s pretty much all he knew about the operation he participated in from August to October 2013. Under cross-examination by defence lawyers, he maintained he was unaware that the police investigation into the proprietor of Richview Cleaners was apparently just a means to a much larger end: to get at Alexander “Sandro” Lisi – Bahrami’s alleged supplier – and through Lisi to his friend, then mayor Rob Ford.

The first people to face charges as a result of the Project Brazen 2 investigation into the possible criminality surrounding the mayor’s office, Bahrami and Lisi were busted on October 1, 2013, and brought up on a handful of drug-related offences. (Lisi was arrested again four weeks later, charged with extortion for his alleged efforts to retrieve the first Ford crack video. That charge is proceeding through the courts separately from the drug trial, and a preliminary hearing will resume April 13.)

Though spun off from a saga best remembered for its cartoonish farce, this trial at Old City Hall’s Ontario Court of Justice has so far been marked by a more understated strain of absurdity. 

Tuesday, March 24: Bright Lights, Big Lisi

Sandro Lisi is home sick today.

He’s been suffering from vertigo and dizziness, according to lawyer Domenic Basile, and has spent the morning throwing up.

“Right now the bright lights are really bothering him,” Basile explains in a ready-made metaphor. He asks Justice Ramez Khawly whether they can start the trial without his client.

Khawly, a former defence attorney appointed to the bench by the Bob Rae government, carries himself with a clear judicial swagger. Tall and slender, he speaks with an emphatic flamboyance you might associate with a favourite grandfather, or perhaps a Tonight Show comic from the 60s. He once imposed a $10 fine on a homeless man, only to pay it himself, in cash.

The judge may pride himself on running a looser, more casual courtroom, but he holds fast to his principles, one of which, the defence learns the hard way, is that he won’t hold a trial in the absence of the accused. 

“That to me smacks of injustice,” he says, and warns counsel that it’s “the worst red flag you can put in front of a bull.”

Bahrami, unlike Lisi, has shown up. But he experiences chronic pain due to rheumatoid arthritis (a condition for which he’s got a medical marijuana licence), and his lawyer, Jacob Stilman, hopes he won’t have to return on subsequent days.

“It’s a question of alleviating Mr. Bahrami’s pain situation,” Stilman says.

Though Justice Khawly briefly raises the possibility of accommodating Bahrami by having a bed brought to the court, they instead agree that Bahrami should feel free to step outside when the pain gets unbearable.

If the guy with chronic pain can tough it out, Lisi has no excuse. But without him the judge adjourns for the day.

“If Mr. Lisi doesn’t appear tomorrow,” Justice Khawly warns, “all bets are off.”

Wednesday, March 25: Ba-ba-ba, ba-Barbudan

Having taken a Gravol, Lisi is feeling a bit better today. 

He pleads not guilty to all charges – one count each of marijuana trafficking, possession of the proceeds of a crime and possession of a small amount of pot. In the context of a lengthy criminal history that includes convictions for assault and uttering death threats, these may be among the least serious things he’s ever been accused of.

“Do you really want to proceed on the charge of under 30 grams of marijuana?” an incredulous Justice Khawly asks the Crown.

“I really do,” says prosecutor Kerry Benzakein.

The charges against Bahrami, on the other hand – three counts of trafficking marijuana and one of possessing cocaine – may be the worst thing that’s ever happened to him. 

His own lawyer tells the press that he’s “the proverbial deer caught in the headlights,” and the fact that he’s licensed to possess large quantities of pot for medicinal purposes rather complicates things. (He’s allowed to have it but not sell it or broker deals for others.)

Both he and Lisi had also been accused of conspiracy to commit an indictable offence, but the Crown dropped those charges as the trial began.

All that said, much of today is about “Dan,” whose nickname we hear again and again before learning it refers to Barbudan Dima, allegedly Bahrami’s preferred supplier.

Detective Fernandes, the Crown’s first witness, describes in excruciating detail his repeated, mostly failed efforts to secure weed from Dan.

“He told me I should meet Dan closer to Hamilton,” Fernandes recalls Bahrami’s advising him, “because otherwise [Dan] and his friends would smoke it [themselves] and become lazy.”

Like the shaggy-dog stoner narrative at the heart of a Coen brothers film, this story ain’t going anywhere, and Justice Khawly is getting impatient. 

Benzakein doesn’t want to be accused of improperly guiding the witness’s testimony, but Khawly implores her to take a hands-on approach. “For God’s sake, lead him!” he barks.

Justice Khawly, vehement on the best of occasions, is seldom more so than when he feels his time is being wasted.

Nevertheless, we continue to detour into details and learn, for example, that Fernandes’s favourite pizza toppings are pepperoni, Italian sausage and mushrooms.

Undercover as “Sean,” the officer cultivated a relationship with Bahrami that became surprisingly close. Over a month and a half, he spent 10 hours hanging out at the cleaner’s, sharing Pizza Pizza and Crest Super beer. He even picked up Bahrami’s Grade 5 son as a favour, testifying that they talked about Mario World in the car.

By late September, Fernandes was suited up with a body pack (hidden audio recorder), so the court is treated to hours of his shooting the shit with Bahrami as the cop tries to steer him toward dealing with Lisi rather than his other guy, Dan.

“Sandro is, uh, like a bodyguard of Rob Ford, he’s always with him,” we hear Bahrami tell Fernandes.

He says you often see him in the background of photos with the mayor. “That’s why he’s so panicky, because he thinks everybody’s after him.”

Unknown to Bahrami (and apparently also to Fernandes), Lisi had spent the summer being actively and thoroughly surveilled by police, who documented his activities and communications with the mayor, later describing these interactions as “indicative to that of drug trafficking.”

Lisi, who’d engaged in counter-surveillance, was therefore reluctant to do business with Bahrami’s new pal “Sean.”

“Jay, are you setting me up?” Bahrami says Lisi asked him.

Thursday, March 26: Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dealers

Pink’s Just Give Me A Reason echoes in the courtroom. Bahrami kept the radio on in his shop, and Fernandes’s body pack picked up all the day’s top hits. 

The store sounds lively and friendly, as much a community hub as a cleaner’s can be. Fernandes tries to arrange a large weed purchase from Lisi, but a possibly stoned Bahrami has trouble wrapping his head around the math. The officer walks him through calculating a fair price for 288 grams, which is just over half a pound.

“So you’re saying $1,600 for a pound,” Fernandes confirms.

“Yeah, but, no… that’s what I told him,” Bahrami says.

“Divided 1,600 divided by two.”

“Eighteen.”

“Eight hundred.”

“Uh-huh.”

It goes on like this for a while.

From another perspective, this could be the story of a long-suffering, hard-working dry cleaner who loves his family and manages to get by until he meets a new friend who isn’t all he seems. 

But even as a bit player in someone else’s drama, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the guy. 

Stilman, Bahrami’s lawyer, keeps returning to this theme as he cross-examines the officer, trying to get him to concede that Bahrami was in effect collateral damage in an investigation that was never really about him.

Fernandes, however, pleads ignorance of the larger context: “I was told that it was about buying drugs from Mr. Bahrami.”

He does admit his superiors never told him that Bahrami had a licence for medpot.

Friday, March 27: Everybody hurts sometimes

Today is the Crown’s turn to take ill. Benzakein is suffering from migraine-like symptoms, though she declines to name her specific condition.

Justice Khawly is happy to accommodate, taking frequent breaks to allow her time to recuperate away from the light. The courtroom’s blinds are drawn shut, hiding the generous view of City Hall to the north and west.

Lisi’s lawyer, Basile, is up to cross-examine Fernandes and seems to get what he wants: the officer confirms that at no time during the investigation did he ever interact or have direct contact with Lisi. He never even saw him, save for a photo Bahrami pulled up on a computer.

Fernandes, of course, isn’t the Crown’s only witness. When the trial resumes at the end of this month, next up will be Daryl Bell, the officer who arrested Lisi. Maybe he’ll share his own pizza preferences.

***

The best part of the weeks-long undercover operation to buy bulk quantities of drugs was that the detective kept getting his suits cleaned the whole time. Firmly grounding the exercise in the mundane rhythms of everyday life, the ruse underscored the ordinariness of the situation. 

It’s hard not to wonder how many people in the courtroom have smoked pot in the last couple years and whether the path those plants took were much more dignified than the scenario presented at trial. There’s a weird kind of shared culpability in the air amid the twists of fate and systems of power that have brought some people to one part of the room or the other.

But the thread running through the case – the only evident reason the operation took place and the only reason anyone might pay attention to the trial – is the shadow cast by the ex-mayor and those whose lives intersected with his. Everyone who ever floated into Ford’s orbit has yet to escape his gravitational pull. 

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

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