The Toronto computer leasing Inquiry has fallen on hard times. Gone are the heady days when the media horde regularly descended on the East York Civic Centre to watch the likes of Mayor Melvin Douglas Lastman and super-salesman Dash Domi take their places on the witness stand.Observers were aghast when Lastman absolved himself of all responsibility for a computer contract that was supposed to be worth $43 million but somehow ended up costing taxpayers more than $100 million.
Domi, the MFP Financial Services account executive who won the city's business for his Mississauga firm, was even more amusing. The former hairdresser spent nine days on the stand claiming severe memory loss. Yes, he did run up a $100,000 expense tab wining and dining former city treasurer Wanda Liczyk. But damned if Domi could remember much of anything about any of it -- except that most of his expense receipts were probably bogus and it did seem that he spent a lot of time making phone calls to then budget chief Tom Jakobek.
Not long after Domi got off the stand, inquiry crowds started to dwindle dramatically. A few more MFP operatives were called before Justice Denise Bellamy to be interrogated by her lead counsel, Ron Manes. They were followed by an independent leasing expert and the city's director of purchasing and materials management. By the time the inquiry recessed for the March break two weeks ago, Brendan Power, the consultant who prepared the "request for quotations" for the city, was being questioned concerning his area of expertise. He'll get right back on the stand when the probe resumes on Monday (March 24).
Alas, the public gallery and media centre set up on the civic centre's third floor will be all but deserted. "Things have gotten down to a level of detail that can be excruciating," one inquiry insider acknowledged this week. "It's not the kind of stuff that causes the media to pay much attention, and once the media loses interest, so does the public."
It was surely no coincidence, then, that some politicians at City Hall seized upon the lull in the proceedings to question the need to spend money on an inquiry that council only ordered after overcoming stiff opposition from Lastman and others.
"This thing's off the rails," councillor Doug Holyday complained recently. "I don't think we'll ever get value out it. What the heck is the sense of spending $15 million for people to tell you they can't remember things or they lied on their expense accounts? The costs are alarming."
Alarming, indeed. In fact, Bellamy and her staff were just as stunned as anyone else when a report from the city legal department put the cost of the probe at $15 million without ever consulting them about what was actually being spent.
"Justice Bellamy has been concerned about costs right from the word go," Manes said this week. "Part of her mandate is to keep costs down and to manage them properly."
Apparently, the judge objected to the numbers that were being "thrown around" and to charges that the cost of her inquiry had "spiralled out of control." This week she submitted an $8.4-million budget for the two-phase probe that will move on to dissect a number of controversial software deals once the MFP matter has been exhausted. Although the inquiry is confident the use of affidavit evidence from lesser witnesses will cut down on time, it's highly unlikely the full inquiry will be concluded before fall. In other words, it should be fresh in the minds of voters when they go to the civic election polls in November.
Bellamy's budget will be presented to council at its April meeting.
Manes isn't overly concerned about the media's lack of attention to the inquiry since mid-February. "We don't run an inquiry to sell newspapers and cause a big sensation," he said. "What we're into right now isn't necessarily sexy stuff, but it's fundamental. We basically dissect the procurement process step by step to determine how it failed. It's vitally important so the public can rest assured that the processes their city government goes through are sound."
That's good enough for councillor Michael Walker. "If the citizens of Toronto get honest government out of this inquiry, then it's worth every nickel that's put into it," he said.
Councillor Howard Moscoe is satisfied that a minority of his colleagues will be unable to obstruct the inquiry's work. "There isn't a single constituent of mine who's said the MFP inquiry is too costly. Now that the public has had a peek behind the closed doors at City Hall, they have an appetite for finding out more about how these deals are put together."
It will probably be a few more weeks before the public gets really interested in the inquiry again. On April 14, Manes plans to start calling on parties whose names came up during an OPP investigation of allegations that bribes were solicited from one of MFP's competitors before the computer leasing contract was awarded. Tom Jakobek and Jeff Lyons, the prominent City Hall lobbyist, are among the six witnesses scheduled to give testimony related to these stunning accusations, which caused the inquiry to be adjourned for two months before it finally began last December.
At the time, the police decided there was insufficient evidence to lay criminal charges. But that won't stop Manes and his legal team from digging deeper into the matter. And the hard times and temporary obscurity will finally be over.