Mississauga Council sides with integrity commissioner, docks Ron Starr 60-day’s pay
Mississauga City Council accepted a recommendation from integrity commissioner Robert Swayze to dock the pay of Councillor Ron Starr for 60 days after he concluded Starr breached the Code of Conduct when he allegedly scratched the vehicle of former council member Karen Ras. Starr has repeatedly denied the allegation.
Starr was accused by Ras of keying her car numerous times in a City Hall parking lot between mid-2019 and April 2021, allegations she levelled in a public letter released when she stepped down from her council position in late January. Using video evidence and discussions with police—who previously investigated the complaint from Ras but did not pursue charges—Swayze concluded Starr was responsible for a keying incident that took place on April 13, 2021.
Throughout the lengthy ordeal, Starr has denied the allegations against him. He has not been removed from any City committees or been instructed to issue a formal apology. He has registered for the upcoming October 24 municipal election.
Starr’s lawyer Emilio Bisceglia stood before council Wednesday and accused the integrity commissioner of conducting a flawed investigation, one that did not follow proper procedure and was biased against Councillor Starr from the beginning. Starr was not given a fair chance to respond to the allegations, the lawyer alleged.
“We did ask for extra time, we asked for delays and extensions, because we were hoping to get the proper video so we could give it to our experts,” Bisceglia said.
Swayze’s report revealed numerous back and forth emails between Bisceglia attempting to obtain what he believes might be exculpatory evidence.
He also picked apart Swayze’s argument on why Starr ended up paying for the damages on Ras’s vehicle.
Swayze consulted the camera footage, a police report (that we now know names Starr as guilty) and a receipt for the damages to Ras’s vehicle. According to the integrity commissioner Starr paid the $1,250 to repair the scratches.
“I asked myself, would I pay for damages that someone else did if I’m innocent?” Swayze told council.
Bisceglia said Starr paid the damages based on advice from his previous lawyer Gary Mooney, so the matter would be resolved without the need for a court date. Knowing this Swayze still decided this contributed to his finding that Starr likely scratched the car.
“Mr. Swayze is a lawyer, my client is not a lawyer. When these allegations were made by police he did what was reasonable, he hired a lawyer,” Bisceglia said. “The legal advice he got from Mr. Mooney was to pay the $1,200 and get this resolved.”
The integrity commissioner has limited powers when it comes to enforcing the recommended punishment, that decision lies with Council. The finding is not a court decision.
Unlike criminal charges where the decision needs to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, under the Municipal Act integrity commissioners need to be confident that a Code violation was more likely than not on a balance of probabilities.
“There was a scratching of the car and it is probable councillor Starr committed that act,” Swayze concluded.
In his deputation, Swayze explained to councillors the constant new information Starr and his lawyers gave him over the course of two months. He revealed the first draft of his report was finished in early May, but the new details from Starr delayed the report’s release.
The integrity commissioner consulted security camera footage from the parking lot which he said shows Ras pulling into a parking spot, followed by Starr who backs his truck next to Ras’s vehicle. The council member then proceeds to get out of his truck and circle around his vehicle to “crouch” down by the Kia Sportage.
“He is seen clearly through the side and front window of her car crouching down and turning to face the grill of her car within touching distance from the car,” the report reads.
Mississauga Integrity commissioner Robert Swayze has been in the position for seven years. He claims he has never devoted more time to an investigation than in this case.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
It does not show, according to Swayze and Bisceglia, Starr actually making contact with the vehicle with an instrument that would cause damage.
Starr told Swayze he was crouching down to pick up a piece of paper. In his report Swayze dismisses this explanation.
“We had questions; reasonable questions,” Bisceglia said. “We wanted to know all the evidence so we could respond and facilitate the answer and not be surprised by comments like we are today made by the integrity commissioner.”
Bisceglia confirmed Wednesday one of the pieces of evidence being sought was a better quality video of the footage from the parking lot. He did not specify other evidence because of confidentiality.
“You'll have to ask him why the information was disclosed, including statements from other individuals that seem to exist,” Bisceglia said. “They're mentioned in the documents, but [we] don’t know where they are.”
Ultimately, Starr’s lawyers said they responded in the end, despite their efforts to get all the evidence first, because having a response was “better than having none at all.”
Swayze did not provide a full explanation of why some of the evidence has not come forward.
When the key marks first appeared on the vehicle, Ras went to Peel Regional Police to investigate. The detective managing the case for Peel police told Swayze that Mooney admitted Starr’s guilt, according to the integrity commissioner.
In a public statement last week, Starr wrote there was no admission of guilt by him or his lawyer.
A number of councillors asked Swayze to explain the alleged comment from police, and how it factored into his decision.
“This is hearsay evidence and I did not consider it in making my findings,” Swayze said Wednesday.
This was odd, as he included high up in his report the details of the alleged admission to police. If Swayze took this as hearsay evidence that did not have any proof to back up the claim of an admission, he did not explain why he included the information so prominently in his report, creating doubt about Starr’s innocence.
Councillors were reminded their decision was either to accept the report from Swayze and enforce the recommended suspension of pay, decide on a punishment separate from the recommendation or defer the decision.
Andra Maxwell, Mississauga’s solicitor and director of legal services, told councillors “this is not a trial,” after questions about the evidence continued.
“Your role is not to investigate this,” Maxwell said. “A lot of questions today are now getting into the details of evidence…that is not your role.”
Councillors were encouraged to ask Swayze about the process and how he came to his conclusion that Starr is guilty of breaching the Code of Conduct, after Starr called into question the integrity commissioner’s process saying in a statement last week the investigation was “biased and unfair.”
“The Integrity Commissioner’s findings are simply wrong,” he added.
Swayze’s conduct throughout the matter has raised concerns. Councillor Carolyn Parrish asked the integrity commissioner why he came to council earlier and apologized for not investigating when Ras first approached Swayze about the alleged harassment.
He now says Ras did not file an official complaint, making it unclear if he did not investigate for that reason or because he mistakenly thought he could not investigate after police concluded their work (which is not the case; the Municipal Act only states an integrity commissioner has to suspend its investigation until the police determine whether or not criminality was involved).
“Would it have not been a simple answer to say the investigation was done by police?” Parrish asked, instead of apologizing for not doing his own investigation when Ras first went to him.
Mississauga Councillor Ron Starr has repeatedly denied the allegations against him.
(Alexis Wright/ The Pointer)
The Mississauga Code of Conduct explains councillors should attempt to resolve issues among themselves before taking further action. The redacted police report indicates the matter was closed by police because Ras was satisfied with the outcome that saw Starr pay for the repairs. But according to Swayze this was not true. Ras asked him to investigate in September 2021 (police closed the case in June).
Swayze apologized for his misinterpretation of the Code (which seemed unusual for a man who for years has served as the integrity commissioner to numerous municipalities). He was directed to launch his own investigation when council voted for the move on February 9 after Ras went to the media with her allegations shortly after she stepped down from Council to pursue another job opportunity and for personal reasons, including the alleged harassment.
Since the integrity commissioner decided not to investigate originally, Bisceglia argued that added to his potential motivation to find Starr guilty.
“If you're going to deal with the allegation, shouldn't it be someone completely [removed] who was not tainted by the fact that he said no in September, and now he was being summoned back and told, ‘I think you're wrong in terms of your opinion, I want you to restart.’ It's really directing the conclusion before we even start,” he said.
Councillor Stephen Dasko questioned if Swayze could be biased when making his decision that ultimately found Starr guilty.
“I have been the Mississauga integrity commissioner for seven years… and I have never mentioned Councillor Starr in a report, I’ve never given him any advice… I had no reason to have a negative opinion about him,” he said. This explanation did not address the possibility of bias in favour of Ras after Swayze wrongly refused to investigate her complaint in the first place.
His report says Starr and his lawyers were given a lot of time to review the findings and respond before the report was made public. According to Bisceglia, independent expert opinions and reviews as well as medical information were given to Swayze. Bisceglia said Swayze never reached out for clarification on the documents or to ask for more information.
Swayze spent much of his time Wednesday, as he did in his report, defending his own process.
“I would say in the 14 years of being an integrity commissioner, this is the most I've ever given [extensions] in any case I’ve worked on,” he said.
Bisceglia called the deadlines “artificial” because Swayze did not give the proper instructions about how and when responses should have been submitted.
Starr’s legal team was so concerned about Swayze’s report they hired another consultant who issued a memo to councillors late the night before council was set to debate the findings. Julian Fantino, a lawyer and former police chief, indicated in the memo (which was not attached to the public agenda) there are numerous flaws in Swayze’s report.
His memo was not given much consideration by council members since many had not even read it and it was not in the public eye.
Responding to questions from council members Swayze said he never had a conversation with Starr or Ras and only communicated through email. The integrity commissioner explained the process allowed Starr to reply to the allegations and evidence but it was not necessary for Swayze to reach out directly.
“We were available for questions,” Bisceglia pointed out, adding that Swayze never made an effort to clarify the evidence submitted, but later disregarded the expert opinions in his report.
Mayor Bonnie Crombie asked Swayze how he landed on the punishment of 60 days without pay. She noted the integrity commissioner had few options to choose from.
“I would normally suggest 30 days, but I just felt that this was — as I said, in my report — mindless vandalism. I just felt that it was demeaning, it was harassment, it was bullying of councillor Ras and I felt that 60 days was appropriate,” Swayze said.
In the end council used a motion by Councillor Matt Mahoney to accept Swayze’s report and recommendation. Councillor Parrish and Councillor George Carlson were the only two who opposed.
Starr released a statement late July 6 after the decision.
“I believe that, even on a balance of probabilities standard, there was no compelling evidence to support Mr. Swayze’s findings against me,” he said. “I maintain that this investigation was biased and politically motivated from the outset, and as a result, I have been denied a fair and impartial investigation into this matter.”
Kathryn Marshall, Ras’s lawyer, told The Pointer in an email the process was “flawed” but she is satisfied with the outcome.
“It is unfortunate and unacceptable that she needed to raise her complaints publicly in order to compel action. This entire process has been very frustrating and has taken way too long but, ultimately, Council made the right decision today,” she said. “This decision also confirms that municipal Workplace Harassment policies need to be extended to elected officials. Too often, matters get ignored and swept under the rug.This experience has identified major systemic gaps in dealing with these types of issues for elected officials.”
Marshall also mentioned the need for the next elected municipal council to fix the gaps to avoid situations like this again.
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