Minister in charge of OPP denies he's campaigning for politician questioned in police probe

Virtually anyone can take their picture with him, cabinet minister Michael Tibollo says, so the use of his image by a city council candidate in Vaughan — whose husband and cottage are under OPP investigation — should in no way suggest the probe will be compromised.

Michael Tibollo says it's coincidence he's appeared twice in a week with Vaughan candidate Eliana Di Biase

Vaughan city council candidate Eliana Di Biase, centre, is seen at the first of two bingo nights last week where she was introduced by Ontario Community Safety Minister Michael Tibollo, right. Tibollo says it's a coincidence and he hasn't endorsed anyone in the municipal race. (Facebook)

Ontario Community Safety Minister Michael Tibollo, who's in charge of the OPP, is being criticized for appearing to back a Vaughan city council candidate whose cottage and husband are under investigation by the force — though he says it's just coincidence he's made two public appearances with her in the last week, posing for photos and announcing her to voters.

At the most recent event, Tibollo had 20 boxes of Pizza Nova carted in to a seniors bingo night on Friday at a community centre in his riding, where advance voting was taking place down the hall. He then introduced Vaughan council candidate Eliana Di Biase and her husband to the room, as well as two candidates for other elected offices, and posed for a picture with her.

Tibollo brought 20 pizzas to a second seniors bingo night, on Friday, where he introduced Di Biase to the crowd. The two have appeared together at least five times in the month before next week's Vaughan municipal elections. (Facebook)

Earlier in the week, Tibollo appeared with Di Biase at another pizza-fuelled seniors bingo night at another community centre in his riding. He introduced her to the room before she spoke to the crowd and they both mingled. Di Biase's Instagram account made a photo montage of the event with soaring strains of Italian opera music and the title, "The Perfect Symphony... MPP Michael Tibollo / Eliana Di Biase."   

It's prompted criticism of Tibollo from one of Di Biase's rivals for the Vaughan council seat — the same political activist who triggered the ongoing OPP investigation into Di Biase's husband and the construction of their family cottage.

"He should not be anywhere near this," Richard Lorello said. "Mr. Tibollo, who oversees the OPP, is giving the appearance of bias."

Tibollo says he showed up at the seniors events as part of his rounds to thank people who voted for him in last spring's provincial election — though his Instagram account shows he had already visited the first seniors group back in August — and he in no way co-ordinated with Di Biase's campaign.

"Their bingo nights are open, so there's all kinds of people that go through there," he said in an interview. "I didn't invite anyone to come specifically to come to any events ... These are community centres, I can't stop people from coming in or from being there."

Simone Barbieri, who is running for a different seat on Vaughan council, said someone alerted her to what was happening at Friday's bingo night and she went to the community centre, where she approached Tibollo to express her concern with "the optics here."   

"I go, 'Michael, do you know how bad this looks? His [Di Biase's] wife is running in the elections and there's an investigation currently against him — and you're the minister that controls the OPP.'

"And he said, 'We're not doing anything wrong.'"  

Tibollo also said he regularly has his picture taken at public functions with other elected officials and candidates, and generally has no problem if they use the photos to promote themselves.

The Di Biase campaign has posted numerous photos on social media from at least five events over the last month of the candidate with the cabinet minister.

A picture of Tibollo with Di Biase also appears in her campaign ads in local newspapers and in her campaign literature.

Di Biase's newspaper ad features a photo of her with Tibollo (left small photo). (CBC)

OPP probing cottage construction

The OPP investigation began in 2015, after Lorello complained to police that the Di Biase family was building a waterfront cottage near Barrie, Ont., with help from a construction firm that had received $150 million in business from the city of Vaughan — much of it while Eliana's husband, Michael Di Biase, was mayor, then a councillor and then deputy mayor.

Officers from the OPP's economic crime and corruption unit have been probing Michael Di Biase and the cottage ever since, scrutinizing his ties to numerous city contractors going back 15 years and trying to determine whether he accepted free or discounted construction work. Di Biase has denied receiving "any help at all" on the cottage from firms he dealt with while he was at city hall.

Di Biase resigned as deputy mayor last year over an unrelated finding by Vaughan's integrity commissioner that he had sexually harassed a city employee; he maintained his innocence and said any physical interaction was consensual. 

The probe into the Di Biase cottage has touched Eliana Di Biase, though she is not the subject of the investigation. She's the sole officer listed on the Ontario numbered company that owns the property and is named on some construction paperwork, and according to sources familiar with the OPP probe, investigators have sought documents from her and to put questions to her.

Eliana Di Biase's husband, former Vaughan mayor and councillor Michael Di Biase, right, has been under OPP investigation since 2015 over the construction of their family cottage. The property is registered to a numbered company in Eliana's name. (Facebook)

Lorello said "it can't send a very strong signal of confidence" to those OPP officers if their cabinet minister is "out with Mrs. Di Biase."

"I want to see a fair and unbiased investigation take place. I'm sure that the residents so Vaughan want to see an unbiased investigation take place, but he's not helping matters," he said.

Di Biase's campaign issued a statement Wednesday morning saying: "Eliana Di Biase has been door-knocking and attending public events seven days a week since she registered as a candidate. She will continue to focus on her message of a safe, affordable, livable Vaughan in the closing days of the campaign."

The Di Biase cottage is on the shore of Orr Lake, about 25 kilometres north of Barrie, Ont. (Google Maps)

The campaign has some overlap with Tibollo's run last spring for the Vaughan–Woodbridge seat in provincial parliament. Eliana Di Biase helped on Tibollo's team, and her husband was initially welcomed as a volunteer, too, before it was quickly announced he would not be involved — though he was still spotted at the campaign's offices. Now, four months later, the chair of last spring's Tibollo campaign and one of its social media experts are helping on Eliana Di Biase's election effort.

Tibollo said none of this should suggest that he would in any way compromise the ongoing OPP probe into Michael Di Biase and the cottage.

"I know my responsibilities and I would never cross the line and jeopardize an investigation by getting involved," he said. "It's not what I do and it's not what my function is, and I'm very careful of that."

About the Author

Zach Dubinsky

Senior Writer, CBC Investigations Unit

Zach Dubinsky is an investigative journalist. His reporting on offshore tax havens (including the Paradise Papers and Panama Papers), political corruption and organized crime have won multiple national and international awards. Phone: 416-205-7553. Email zach.dubinsky@cbc.ca

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