Ontario anti-Mafia prosecution falls apart after police monitor suspect’s communications with lawyers

Project Sindacato was an ambitious, 18-month long probe targeting what investigators alleged was a clan of the ‘Ndrangheta, a globally powerful Mafia group

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Charges from one of Ontario’s most substantial investigations into organized crime have been halted, including against a man police alleged to be one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in the province, because police improperly monitored interactions between suspects and their lawyers.

Project Sindacato was an ambitious, 18-month long probe by York Regional Police, north of Toronto, announced with great fanfare in 2019, targeting what investigators alleged was a clan of the ‘Ndrangheta, a globally powerful Mafia group.

There were 15 people arrested and police seized 27 homes worth $24 million, 23 high-end cars worth $3.5 million, about $1 million in cash, along with a remarkable array of luxury goods including boxes of Rolex watches and outrageously expensive booze. York police worked in cooperation with Canada Revenue Agency investigators.

Police named those arrested as members or associates of the “Figliomeni Crime Group” and said the Mafia clan’s boss, Angelo Figliomeni, was among those arrested.

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Angelo Figliomeni and his house, which was seized by York police.
Angelo Figliomeni and his house, which was seized by York police. Photo by YRP

York police’s then-chief, Eric Jolliffe, announced: “These arrests signify the fall of power for the most significant ‘Ndrangheta crime family operating in York Region. Over the past 18 months, we have invested heavily, using our finest and most highly trained investigators to bring an end to this family’s international illegal gaming and money-laundering activities.”

There was an end, but not how police anticipated.

“The issue we alleged was that investigators were improperly accessing communications involving lawyers,” said Michael Lacy, lawyer for Figliomeni. “There were also email communications with lawyers that were improperly accessed and used by the police for investigative purposes. This occurred throughout the investigation after the first wiretap authorization.”

Fausto Lamparelli, of the Italian State Police, speaks to the media as York Regional Police announce arrests as part of Project Sindacato on July 18, 2019.
Fausto Lamparelli, of the Italian State Police, speaks to the media as York Regional Police announce arrests as part of Project Sindacato on July 18, 2019. Photo by Stan Behal/Postmedia Network

Defence lawyers filed legal motions complaining of police conduct.

“The Crown, quite responsibly, brought in an outside police officer from the Toronto Police Service to investigate our claims. Ultimately, we did not get the result of that investigation because instead of litigating the motions, the Crown instead chose to stay the charges,” Lacy said.

Of the nine people formally charged in Project Sindacato, three had their charges stayed in 2020. Charges against the remaining accused were stayed Jan. 27.

York Regional Police (YRP) declined to discuss how the case went awry. York police are “extremely disappointed” in the Crown’s decision, said Const. Laura Nicole.

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“While we are not in a position to make comment on the reasoning for not moving forward with prosecution, it should be noted that YRP worked collaboratively and diligently with the Crown from the onset of and throughout the criminal investigation.

“We received advice from the Crown at several junctures, relating to appropriate charges and investigative methods and to ensure the Crown was satisfied of a reasonable prospect of conviction,” Nicole said.

The case was jointly prosecuted by provincial and federal prosecutors.

Nathalie Houle, spokeswoman for Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC), confirmed the stay of the federal fraud charge against Figliomeni. Brian Gray, spokesman for the province’s Ministry of the Attorney General, which prosecuted the other criminal charges, confirmed the remaining stays.

“In this matter, the Crown carefully considered the applicable law, the anticipated evidence, and also consulted with the PPSC. Based upon all the circumstances, both prosecution services independently determined that a stay was appropriate,” Gray said.

A ferrari belonging to Angelo Figliomeni, which was seized during one of the raids.
A ferrari belonging to Angelo Figliomeni, which was seized during one of the raids. Photo by YRP

“The Crown is duty bound to discontinue a prosecution if there is no reasonable prospect of conviction or if it is not in the public interest to proceed,” Gray said.

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In a court application filed by Figliomeni, counsel called the police actions a “flagrant disregard” for the terms of the wiretap authorizations that were in place over 11 months.

During court hearings in October, counsel for various of the accused discovered breaches of solicitor-client privilege, with one lawyer saying they “shockingly” learned their communications with a co-accused of Figliomeni was not only in the hands of police but shared with other lawyers for other accused. Another lawyer called it “very problematic.”

Investigators also failed to comply with a judge’s directions for accessing legal communications on electronic devices seized during the probe, the court filing says.

In fact, the filing alleges, “one of the main investigators utilized solicitor-party communications to create an investigative report that was ultimately relied on for the purposes of obtaining a special restraint order.”

York Regional Police held a press conference announcing arrests as part of Project Sindacato on July 18, 2019.
York Regional Police held a press conference announcing arrests as part of Project Sindacato on July 18, 2019. Photo by Stan Behal/Postmedia Network

Information on the breach was then “largely suppressed” by police, the filing complains. “This conduct only magnifies what was already a significant and serious breach,” says an application by Figliomeni for staying charges.

Discovery of the breach interrupted the scheduled trial of the accused.

The staying of charges will mean that seized property, apart from any illegal goods, should be returned. That will presumably apply to two Ferrari sports cars seized from Figliomeni’s garage and a $6,000 bottle of Macallan single-malt Scotch and $4,000 bottle of Louis XIII Cognac.

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“Mr. Figliomeni has always maintained that he did not commit any criminal offence,” Lacy said on Figliomeni’s behalf.

Mr. Figliomeni has always maintained that he did not commit any criminal offence

“It was our position that the Crown’s case was premised on innuendo, suspicion and unsubstantiated allegations.

“Quite apart from what we alleged was significant police illegality, we were confident that Mr. Figliomeni was going to be exonerated. My client is glad that this is over but there is no joy in having to have gone through the experience in the first place.”

Project Sindacato was the first project of a new anti-mob task force launched by York police in 2017.

Figliomeni, 56 when arrested, of Vaughan, Ont., was charged with directing a criminal organization, possession of proceeds of crime, laundering proceeds of crime, tax evasion and other alleged offences. He is now free and all charges stayed.

Mob boss Vito Rizzuto, during his arrest in Montreal in 2004.
Mob boss Vito Rizzuto, during his arrest in Montreal in 2004. Photo by Phil Carpenter/Postmedia

Police in Canada have a history of stumbling over solicitor-client privilege rules when trying to tackle the mob.

In 2018, Leonardo Rizzuto, the son of deceased Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto, along with a co-accused, Stefano Sollecito, were acquitted of charges of gangsterism and conspiracy to traffic drugs in Quebec for a similar breach by investigators.

In 1990, Vito Rizzuto was acquitted in a large drug trafficking case in Newfoundland after police recorded conversations between his lawyers by bugging a table in a hotel restaurant where they ate dinner after each day’s court hearing.

After Rizzuto’s release because of the illegal wiretap, Rizzuto said: “One word can mean so much, especially when that word is acquittal.”

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