TORONTO — A wave of alleged criminal activity rocking Ontario's tow truck industry clearly shows the need for stronger oversight, Premier Doug Ford said Monday as he announced a newly appointed task force would be reviewing ways to overhaul the sector.
The group, consisting of officials from across numerous government ministries as well as the Ontario Provincial Police, will draft a new regulatory framework for the sector that has wound up in the crosshairs of at least two high-profile police probes in recent months.
Ford cited the investigations by both the Toronto and York Regional Police services when announcing the task force.
"To all the bad actors out there, my message is very clear — the party's over," Ford said at a news conference. "We're coming for you, and we'll catch you, and we will lock you up."
York police said last month that a number of industry players were facing charges following an investigation dubbed Project Platinum that spanned several jurisdictions but concentrated on the Greater Toronto Area.
Supt. Mike Slack of the force's organized crime and intelligence services said at the time that a lucrative turf war had erupted along stretches of major provincial highways, resulting in charges ranging from murder to arson. None of those charges have yet been proven in court.
Slack alleged multiple tow truck companies, all with ties to organized crime, had defrauded insurance companies with vehicles involved in real and staged collisions. He alleged the companies would grossly inflate towing bills, move cars from lot to lot to increase storage fees and inflate repair bills.
Body shops and car rental companies were in on the schemes, Slack said, and would receive "profitable cuts for themselves.''
Insurance companies grew wise to the alleged frauds, Slack said, prompting them to hire a Vaughan, Ont., law firm to help them push back against the scams. That firm, police alleged, itself became a target of threats and gun violence and was ultimately forced to close up shop.
Project Platinum ultimately resulted in dozens of charges against at least 20 people. Weeks later, Toronto police charged 11 others in an investigation of its own that ensnared a veteran officer.
The officer was accused of stealing encrypted police radios and helping to put them in the hands of tow truck operators. Those drivers would then rely on dispatch information to arrive first at accident scenes and secure lucrative towing jobs, the force alleged.
In reviewing the mandate of the new task force, Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said that practice would be among the many issues flagged for review.
"This is an element that contributes to the violence," she said. "It's certainly something that we will be looking at as part of the task force's work."
The task force will also be asked to provide recommendations for a new regulatory framework, which could potentially replace the current system that leaves the towing industry subject to a patchwork of regulations set by municipalities rather than the province.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones agreed Monday that it was time for tighter regulations.
"(Towing companies) are operating in an industry that lacks oversight and structure, and where too many criminals are making their own rules," she said. "A spike in violence within the industry ... is a threat to Ontarians and public safety, and it must end."
The government said the task force would also review issues such as stronger consumer protections, training and background checks for industry members.
Mulroney said the group has been asked to present its recommendations by the end of July, which will then be shared with sector members and municipalities for input before any government action on the issue gets underway.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2020.
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press