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Toronto police chief, union clash over ex-officer’s legal expenses

Bill Blair, shown in a 2013 photo, says that Rick Benoit’s actions, if proven, would have been a gross dereliction of duty.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The chief of police has asked the Toronto Police Services Board to deny a $424,790 claim for the legal expenses of a former officer who had all charges against him thrown out in a high-profile corruption prosecution against members of a now disbanded drug squad.

Chief Bill Blair states in documents sent to the police board that if Rick Benoit had not resigned from the Toronto police in 2007, the force would have gone ahead with disciplinary charges under the Police Services Act.

"If the allegations against the former police constable were proven, there may have been a basis to conclude that his conduct and activities were not done in the lawful execution of his duties," writes Chief Blair, in advance of the board's meeting on Thursday.

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The request, which has already raised the ire of the Toronto Police Association, has been made despite provisions in the collective agreement that normally cover costs for officers who are charged, but not convicted, of a criminal or disciplinary offence. It also comes at a time when there is some criticism about the ever-increasing police budget, and the chief must disclose soon if he is seeking an extension to his contract, which expires next spring.

The president of the police association says the chief is not applying the collective agreement correctly.

"Our position is that this le- gal claim should be fully indemnified," said Mike McCormack. "If it is not, we will grieve. There was no finding of wrongdoing [against Mr. Benoit]," he added.

Mr. Benoit was one of six Toronto drug squad officers in a unit led by John Schertzer who were charged with a number of corruption-related offences in 2004. They were alleged to have beaten and stolen from drug dealers in the late 1990s.

Charges against all the defendants were initially stayed by a Superior Court judge in 2008 because of unreasonable delay in bringing the case to trial. By this point, Mr. Benoit was facing charges of assault causing bodily harm and extortion, after the preliminary hearing judge threw out other charges for lack of evidence.

The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in the fall of 2009 that the case should still go ahead against the other officers, but upheld the stay for Mr. Benoit, who was represented by prominent defence lawyer Alan Gold. The Court of Appeal was critical of the Crown's decision that Mr. Benoit would not go on trial until after the longer, more complicated proceeding involving his former colleagues, saying "Benoit should not have been held hostage to the trial of the long indictment."

In his bid to quash the payment of Mr. Benoit's legal bill, Chief Blair is relying on another section within the collective agreement, which permits the Board to refuse to cover legal costs if the conduct of an officer amounted to a "gross dereliction of duty" or abuse of power. Chief Blair says in the request to the Board that he has reviewed the issue with the city's legal department and if proven, the conduct of Mr. Benoit would have been abusive and a gross dereliction of duty.

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Toronto police declined to comment beyond what is in the chief's written request to the board.

The oversight agency was also provided with information in a confidential attachment, which is unlikely to be made public.

The attempt by the chief to have the police association cover the legal bill is the latest chapter in the long-running and still ongoing court proceeding involving the former drug squad.

The five former colleagues of Mr. Benoit were convicted by a jury in 2012 of obstruction of justice. Three of the defendants were also convicted of perjury, although all of the former officers were acquitted of other charges, including ones related to the incident where Mr. Benoit had been charged.

Justice Gladys Pardu sentenced the five officers to 45 days of house arrest. An appeal has been filed by the Crown and is scheduled to be heard by the Court of Appeal this fall.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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