Word that the public inquiry into Toronto's computer leasing scandal is in a state of indefinite suspension has raised troubling questions about the future of the judicial probe and its growing dependence on the Ontario Provincial Police.On September 30, Madame Justice Denise Bellamy adjourned her inquiry to let the OPP investigate surprise allegations of bribery related to the city's controversial dealings with MFP Financial Services. Almost immediately there were rumblings that the delay would keep the public from ever learning the truth about how an information technology contract supposedly worth $43 million could end up costing taxpayers more than $100 million.
At the heart of all this tongue-wagging is the OPP's record of performance (or lack thereof) in a number of recent investigations related to some rather well-publicized accusations of municipal corruption. Last year, for example, the provincial fraud squad decided not to lay charges against members of the Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO) involved in giving local sports mogul Steve Stavro a highly irregular lease extension on some prime city-owned real estate along the downtown waterfront. More than a few heads are still shaking in disbelief over the outcome of that investigation.
Then along came allegations that Jeff Lyons, a renowned City Hall lobbyist and political fundraiser, instructed a former aide to deposit into her bank account more than $13,000 he'd received from a client. According to an affidavit sworn by Susan Cross in June 2001, she was then told to write cheques on her personal account to 28 candidates who were seeking political office in the 2000 civic election.
Cross said she didn't know such a money-laundering scheme was a violation of the Municipal Elections Act. Furthermore, she couldn't believe that Lyons -- a lawyer and former vice-chair of the Toronto police services board -- would counsel her to do anything illegal. The lobbyist, a long-time Tory bagman and close associate of Mayor Mel Lastman, has denied any wrongdoing.
When the Cross affidavit was made public last May, Michael Prue, the MPP for Beaches-East York, contacted the OPP to file a formal complaint against Lyons. But nearly six months later, no action has been taken.
"No one has even got back to me since I made the complaint," Prue said earlier this week. "I would have thought the OPP would have some questions to ask me, but in all this time there has been no contact."
OPP sources have privately indicated the Lyons investigation is dead because more than a year passed after Toronto police were first made aware of the allegations against him.
But after this information was publicized in the Globe and Mail, shortly after Justice Bellamy adjourned her inquiry, the Lyons probe suddenly came back to life.
"We make inquiries to the OPP about once a week and we keep being told the complaint is still being investigated," Prue said. "But it doesn't seem to be going anywhere."
This lack of action on the campaign contribution question has raised considerable concern that the allegations causing Justice Bellamy to suspend her inquiry on the very day it was to begin will end up in the same place.
In this instance, a former lease manager at Dell Financial Services claims an unnamed lobbyist solicited a $150,000 bribe on behalf of an unidentified city councillor as a precursor to awarding the $43 million computer contract that eventually went to MFP in 1999.
Less than two years later, the contract had almost doubled to $85 million thanks to unauthorized interest rate increases. Unapproved purchases of software licences, which it was later determined were unneeded, pushed the final tab even higher and eventually caused council to call for a judicial inquiry. Terms of reference for the probe were recently expanded to include other questionable business transactions related to the MFP deal.
"There's no question the people involved here move in very high circles," Prue said. "I don't know whether they (the OPP) are reluctant to investigate people like that or they're just too cautious."
Or maybe, as some city councillors have suggested, the OPP just doesn't take city issues seriously.
Whatever the reason, the provincial cops suddenly find themselves exposed to sustained public scrutiny while under intense pressure to perform. If the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry ever resumes, we might eventually find out if they're up to it.