Police investigation stalls Toronto leasing inquiry

A police investigation has been launched that could result in criminal charges involving one or more witnesses scheduled to testify at the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry.

Adjourning the inquiry at 10:05 a.m. Monday, just minutes after it opened, commissioner Madam Justice Denise Bellamy

said counsel involved in the inquiry investigation had uncovered new information late last week that could be deemed as “”evidence of possible criminal conduct”” which prompted a call to the Ontario Provincial Police.

“”I want to ensure that the interest of those individuals, whose right to a fair trial, should it come to that, are not detrimentally affected by the inquiry process. Second, at this juncture I do not believe the inquiry should impede or otherwise interfere with the early stages of a criminal investigation,”” Bellamy said.

To date about 100 witnesses have been interviewed by the inquiry commission, with 35 were scheduled to testify, including Toronto mayor Mel Lastman who was to be the first to appear at the inquiry.

But Lastman didn’t even have a chance to smile for the first photo op. His only appearance was as he hustled to escape reporters covering the inquiry at the East York Civic Centre.

Council voted last winter to go ahead with a public, independent inquiry with an eye to determining why the City paid more than $85 million to Mississauga leasing company MFP Financial Services for computers and software contracts originally priced at $43 million. It will also examine why the city acquired 10,000 Oracle Corp. database enterprise software licences – a number a city auditor report says is a “”fraction”” of what it actually needed.

City audit reports indicate some of the leasing deals escalated in price when interest rates first negotiated by the city went up, and lease terms were extended beyond what had originally be agreed to by council.

Although the investigation has been going on since May, it was only late last week the new information came to light.

“”In my view, the public interest required this be done,”” Bellamy said.

The OPP is expected to provide Bellamy with a status report of their investigation within two weeks, when she will reassess whether the inquiry should be delayed any further.

“”We were asked late last week to look into allegations of possible criminal wrong-doing in the leasing of the computers and we’re literally just getting started today,”” said Ross Bingley, detective superintendent, director of the criminal investigation branch of the OPP based in Orillia. “”We promised we’d report back in two weeks after we do some preliminary checking and hopefully we’ll have some direction by then as to what’s going on.””

So far, Bingley says he has one detective inspector in charge of the investigation and that officer began assembling a team Monday.

The adjournment appeared to come as a surprise to almost everyone at the East York Civic Centre chamber where the inquiry was to begin. However, a public relations officer for the commission handed out Bellamy’s comments to the press soon after she had finished making them.

City council members, including Bas Balkissoon (Scarborough-Rouge River) who had pushed for the inquiry, said news of the police investigation and adjournment was a complete shock.

Balkissoon sits on the city’s audit committee and had pushed for the inquiry for months and was scheduled to be among the first to testify at the inquiry.

“”If I knew it was coming I would be home reading my council agenda,”” quipped Balkissoon just minutes after Bellamy announced the adjournment, adding he had no idea who might be under investigation.

Late last week Balkissoon was quoted in the Toronto press, indicating his concern the inquiry wouldn’t uncover anything more than “”misunderstandings”” between city employees and politicians following the confusion over amalgamation.

Commission counsel, Ron Manes, attempted to answer media questions but limited his comments, pending the outcome of the police investigation. But Manes was clear that the inquiry would eventually continue.

“”This is not a stay or a suspension. We are continuing our preparations in earnest,”” he said. “”We will wait to hear back from the OPP.””

Manes would not say whether which inquiry witnesses could become subject to the police investigation.

Among the former employees scheduled to appear include former chief financial officer Wanda Liczyk, former Lana Viinamae, former director of information technology and Jim Andrew, former director of information technology.

Lastman, who had not yet entered the inquiry chambers at the East York Civic Centre when Bellamy made her announcement, was caught by reporters leaving the side of the building at the same time councilman Balkissoon was also answering media questions in another scrum inside the building.

The inquiry’s mandate is to examine the leasing contracts between the city and MFP Financial Services and the city and Oracle. It is expected to take more than 40 days once it gets going and estimated to cost taxpayers more than $2 million before it is over.

Bellamy emphasized in her comments Monday that it is not a venue where criminal-wrong doing will be determined.

Updates on the progress of the investigation and the resumption of the inquiry can be found www.torontoinquiry.ca

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