Police investigating former Vaughan mayor Michael Di Biase over the construction of his family cottage say they turned up evidence he illicitly accepted an “advantage or benefit” from one of the biggest recipients of city construction contracts.
Personnel at Maystar General Contractors, including a then-partner and senior executive, appear to have helped Di Biase build the cottage north of Barrie by essentially acting as a general contractor at times, the investigators allege.
“Di Biase was not invoiced and did not pay for the services,” an officer says in a sworn statement filed in court. “Di Biase accepted this advantage or benefit from Maystar.”
They say his actions could amount to a crime called “frauds on the government.”
The revelations are contained in applications in 2016 and 2017 by the Ontario Provincial Police’s anti-corruption unit to get court orders for banking and corporate records to further their investigation.
Maystar is a major Vaughan-based construction company that has received more than $150 million in business from the city since 2002, including the contract to build Vaughan’s city hall.
In 2013 and 2014, while construction was getting going on Di Biase’s family cottage and he was a regional councillor in Vaughan, Maystar won a tender to build a city library and was in the bidding process to build a second one and to renovate a community centre, the OPP court filings note.
None of the police allegations have been tested in court and no charges have been laid. No accusations of criminal wrongdoing have been levelled against any of the construction companies or their staff, nor are they under investigation.
An OPP spokesperson said the force’s probe into Di Biase is ongoing.
In a brief conversation earlier this month, Di Biase told CBC News he had just checked out of hospital after suffering a heart attack. He did not reply to follow-up emails requesting comment on the OPP allegations. He has previously denied accepting any benefits or advantages in the construction of his family cottage, saying he “did not get any help at all” from any firms that he dealt with in his many years at Vaughan City Hall.
Maystar lined up sub-contractors, OPP alleges
The heart of the OPP’s criminal investigation lies in a series of emails investigators say they obtained from 2013 and 2014, when construction on the Di Biase family cottage was getting underway.
To build a foundation, the cottage needed anchoring poles called screw piles to be installed in the ground. Police say they found evidence that over a 14-month span, a Maystar partner and executive at the time named Emilio Manzo and two of his employees got two companies to bid and rebid on the work; transmitted the architectural designs they obtained from Di Biase and various engineering reports; and sorted out numerous complications.
Manzo himself sent, received or was cc’d on nearly 30 of those emails, according to the court filings. He used his Maystar email address, the OPP says, and sometimes evinced a detailed knowledge of the cottage’s specifications.
“It is the investigative team’s evidence-based investigative theory that the totality of services … is consistent with Maystar General Contractors performing the role of a general contractor in the construction project,” a sworn police statement says.
At one point, police allege, Di Biase sent an email to one of the architectural designers, copying Manzo. “Can you please call Emilio Manzo? … Emilio is looking after the building of the cottage and he needs clarification on the drawings,” the email reads.
The investigators conclude: “The inclusion of Emilio Manzo is evidence of Emilio Manzo’s involvement in the construction project, … a service performed by Maystar, to the advantage or benefit of Michael Di Biase.”
When OPP officers interviewed Manzo, he allegedly told them that he never communicated with Di Biase about any of Maystar’s projects for the City of Vaughan, that he never had a personal relationship with the veteran politician, and that Di Biase never brought up his position as a city councillor. He allegedly said that Di Biase just popped by the Manzo family cottage — on the other side of Orr Lake — one day in early 2014 seeking help, and that Manzo agreed to lend a hand.
Police say they also interviewed Maystar president Joe Maio, who too has a cottage on Orr Lake, next to Manzo’s.
“Joe Maio stated that Maystar, as a company, provided zero advice and whatever Emilio Manzo did for Michael Di Biase was in his personal capacity. Emilio Manzo took it upon himself to help a neighbour and would have done it for anybody,” the court filings state. Maio also allegedly told police “Maystar was not the general contractor and … Maystar employees were never at Michael Di Biase’s cottage.”
Maystar did not reply to questions from CBC News. Manzo said he hasn’t been with the company for two or three years and wouldn’t comment.
History of entanglements
It’s not the first time Di Biase has been accused of a potentially improper entanglement with Maystar.
He was reprimanded by city council and docked three months’ pay in 2015, after the city’s integrity commissioner found he bullied and swore at municipal staff behind the scenes “with a view to … assisting” Maystar in its attempts to get city contracts. That investigation, like the ongoing OPP probe, was brought on by a complaint by a political rival and local activist, Richard Lorello.
The year before, the city’s solicitor and treasurer rebuked Di Biase for getting too testy about a bidding process that Maystar had been excluded from.
And in the OPP court filings, officers say a senior Vaughan procurement official recounted an incident involving that same bidding process and Di Biase. “He mentioned the names of two contractors, that I should take care of them,” the official allegedly said. “One of them was Maystar.”
Other red flags
The first alleged signs of Maystar’s involvement in the Di Biase cottage came in 2007, though Di Biase’s wife bought the undeveloped lot, on the northwest shore of Orr Lake, back in 2005.
The OPP court filings reveal much of the work over the years was business as usual, but police also say they turned up evidence of these other transactions that raised red flags:
- Geoscientists hired to assess the lot’s soggy soil in 2007 addressed their $3,222 invoice to Maystar, to the attention of partner and senior executive Manzo. It’s not clear who ultimately paid.
- The geoscientists’ report itself exists in two versions. One version, obtained from a subcontractor, has an executive summary that reads, “The scope of work was approved by the client, Mr. Emilio Manzo of Maystar General Contractors Inc.” The headers atop each page read “Maystar General Contractors.” Another version, obtained from the local township where it was on file, omits any mention of Maystar.
- In 2013, when it was finally time to start work on the foundation for the Di Biase cottage, another firm was brought in to reassess the soil. This time, the work was commissioned by, invoiced to, and paid for by another Toronto-area construction company called Memme Construction.
- It wasn’t until May 2015 that Memme Construction billed the Di Biases for the soil testing — but only for a little more than half the $12,568 total cost. The OPP alleges Memme’s involvement is “part of an extended advantage or benefit to the services provided to Michael Di Biase.”
- Once again, officers found discrepancies in different versions of these soil testing reports. Copies sent to the Environment Ministry and another engineering firm omitted any mention of Memme Construction Ltd. on their cover page.
Memme Construction didn’t reply to a CBC News request for comment.
A onetime teacher, Di Biase served on Vaughan council in one capacity or another for all but four years from 1988 to 2017, when he resigned in the wake of a finding by the city’s integrity commissioner that he had sexually harassed a municipal employee.
‘Frauds on the government’
OPP court filings allege former Vaughan, Ont., mayor and deputy mayor Michael Di Biase seems to have violated a section of the Criminal Code, 121(1)(c), that falls under the heading “Corruption and Disobedience.”
The specific offence, called “frauds on the government,” makes it illegal if any government official or employee “directly or indirectly demands, accepts or offers or agrees to accept from a person who has dealings with the government a commission, reward, advantage or benefit of any kind for themselves or another person, unless they have the consent in writing of the head of the branch of government that employs them or of which they are an official.”
The Supreme Court of Canada has said it’s an enactment meant “not merely to preserve the integrity of government, but to preserve the appearance of the integrity as well.”
It’s one of the many charges laid against Senator Mike Duffy in 2014; he was acquitted on all counts two years later after a highly publicized trial. Montreal’s then-mayor Michael Applebaum was also charged with this offence in 2013. He was acquitted on the counts but convicted of eight other crimes at his trial in 2016 and 2017.