THUNDER BAY – Concerned about the possibility of Thunder Bay mayor Keith Hobbs inadvertently finding out he was the subject of a criminal investigation, J.P. Levesque believed it was his role to handle the situation, the police chief testified.
Levesque, the 53-year-old suspended Thunder Bay Police Service chief on trial facing charges of obstruction of justice and breach of trust for allegedly disclosing confidential information that Hobbs was the subject of an investigation for attempting to extort Sandy Zaitzeff, took the stand on Thursday afternoon.
The police chief told the court during his six years leading the force he took “tremendous efforts” to insulate his senior officers from Hobbs, a former city police officer and past president of the Thunder Bay Police Association before becoming mayor.
With Levesque about to take a three-week vacation while incoming deputy police chief Sylvie Hauth would have to take lead amid local and national controversy over the Office of the Independent Police Review Directory’s systemic review of the service, Levesque said he wanted to remove a potential difficulty.
On Dec. 21, 2016, at a retirement luncheon for outgoing deputy chief Andy Hay at the Balmoral Street station, Levesque brought Hobbs into his office. There the police chief told Hobbs an associate of Zaitzeff had brought a complaint to the RCMP, alleging the mayor had attempted to extort Zaitzeff, the high-profile local lawyer who is facing a number of charges including multiple counts of sexual assault involving a minor.
“I was concerned if he found out through other means he would start badgering (Hauth) for information,” Levesque said, adding he believed it was his duty as police chief to have that “difficult conversation.”
The release of a bizarre video on YouTube that went viral on social media weeks earlier featuring Hobbs with a seemingly intoxicated Zaitzeff further worried the police chief that the information could get out.
Levesque said the mayor “could be difficult to deal with” and also described Hobbs as “unpredictable” and “verbally volatile”
“I fully expected him to act poorly. He can be somewhat temperamental and emotional,” Levesque said. “I was quite surprised with how calmly he took the information.”
There was never a concern that Hobbs could destroy evidence, intimidate others from testifying or pose a flight risk, Levesque said.
He thought the extortion allegations were an act that had already taken place and did not represent a continuing offence, Levesque added.
Levesque said he was made aware of the complaint made against Hobbs at a meeting requested the Thunder Bay RCMP detachment earlier in December. At that meeting, Levesque, joined by Hay and Hauth, was told the Mounties were assigning the investigation to Thunder Bay police and would send the case’s documentation. Levesque said that information was never turned over to city police.
The police chief reached out to city manager Norm Gale, who had been an acquaintance during Levesque’s time as a uniformed officer and Gale’s previous career as a frontline paramedic. Gale told Levesque that Hobbs had indicated Zaitzeff threatened to take down the mayor.
Levesque said there had been other instances where he would disclose confidential information to Gale, which primarily involved human resources matters that could pose a threat to the corporation of the city.
“It’s important high-ranking officials in a city know what is happening, might happen or is about to happen,” Levesque said, adding he used his discretion as chief to decide when sharing information would be appropriate.
Levesque also told police services board chair Jackie Dojack about the investigation.
On Wednesday, Staff. Sgt. Susan Kaucharik testified Levesque told her-in person at the police station that he had told Hobbs "as a professional courtesy." Levesque told the court he did not recall discussing the matter face-to-face with Kaucharik and did not recall explaining to anybody he told Hobbs out of courtesy.
Under examination, defence lawyer Brian Gover introduced Levesque as an accomplished, experienced officer who first joined the Thunder Bay police in 1987 had spent two years in the mid-1990s at the Ontario Police College training new recruits and had been awarded both the Governor General’s Order of Merit and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Towards the end of his questioning, Gover asked Levesque whether he had ever intended to interfere or obstruct an investigation.
“No. I would never do that,” Levesque replied.
Under cross-examination, Crown prosecutor Jason Nicol pressed Levesque on the sensitivity of contacting a person of interest or suspect and the importance of maintaining secrecy and limiting information even within the police force to those who need to know.
“(Leaks) can be detrimental,” Levesque acknowledged.
Nicol, who finished presenting evidence on Wednesday, is expected to continue questioning Levesque when court resumes Friday morning.