By Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
An ex-Coquitlam RCMP officer won’t be getting his job back after he was sacked in 2016 for repeatedly lying to ICBC and RCMP investigators regarding damage to his vehicle.
In an attempt to reverse his dismissal, former officer Fareez Vellani sought a federal judge’s review of his failed 2021 appeal to RCMP Commissioner Steven Dunn, which affirmed the RCMP Conduct Board’s decision to discharge him.
Federal Court Judge Shirzad Ahmed found that the Commissioner’s decision was “reasonable” and should be upheld, in a decision issued Jan. 9.
“I can appreciate that the Applicant has suffered from difficult life circumstances, and likely had a lapse in judgment, probably due to a state of panic,” Ahmed said. “Unfortunately, the Applicant’s situation went beyond an initial mistake. He exhibited repeated dishonesty over the course of five weeks and misled fellow RCMP members and the ICBC. It is this misconduct that led to the strict punishment of dismissal from the RCMP.”
Fired for false claims
Vellani’s firing stemmed from an incident on Feb. 13, 2015. After sleeping overnight at a friend’s house, he awoke the next morning to find the front passenger window of his vehicle smashed and some personal belongings stolen.
Vellani claimed he started to panic because the thief could have seen his home address on his insurance papers and may have been able to get into his garage which contained valuables and Vellani’s service weapon.
While driving home, Vellani reported the theft and vandalism to the RCMP’s non-emergency line, and, while still on the phone, crashed his vehicle.
The sound of the crash – which resulted in further damage to his front windshield, hood and front bumper – was recorded on the phone call.
Shortly after arriving home, he reported the vehicle damages to ICBC but fraudulently claimed all the damage was the result of the theft. He failed to mention the crash.
When RCMP officer arrived a few hours later, Vellani made similar false statements and did not mention crashing his vehicle.
A vehicle repair shop owner became suspicious and reported the damage claims to ICBC. The insurance provider subsequently put repairs on hold.
Vellani lied in three official statements to ICBC over the next two months before the RCMP served him with a conduct investigation letter and suspended him on March 27, 2015.
He pled guilty to making a false or misleading statement material to a vehicle insurance claim in provincial court on April 29, 2016, and was fined $3,450.
Before the RCMP conduct Board, Vellani signed an agreed statement of facts, in which he admitted he had breached the RCMP Code of Conduct. A hearing to determine the appropriate sanction was held on September 20, 2016.
In September 2016, the RCMP’s Conduct Board ordered Mr. Vellani to resign from the RCMP within 14 days of receipt of the decision, or he would be dismissed, nothing that Mr. Vellani’s actions represented a fundamental character flaw, making him unsuitable for further employment with the RCMP.
The board handed down its written decision in April 2017, stating the aggravating factors against Vellani were his repeated misrepresentation for personal benefit, a criminal conviction, and tarnishing the RCMP’s reputation, as well as the 2009 Supreme Court ruling requiring the RCMP to disclose disciplinary histories of officers.
Two further appeals of the decision by Vellani were dismissed by the RCMP’s external review committee and the RCMP commissioner in 2020 and 2021.
Vellani submitted to the RCMP Commissioner that he was denied procedural fairness as he was not given that chance to explain that he was not motivated by personal gain.
He further argued the board misconstrued evidence relating to his mental wellbeing at the time of the incident and did not properly assess his work record.
Vellani alleged he was subject to racial discrimination by a superior at the Coquitlam RCMP when he joined the general policing unit, which led to negative effects on his mental health.
Vellani’s superior was later suspended and retired, but prior to resigning, allegedly called Vellani “useless” and told him to transfer to the Traffic Service Unit.
Vellani began seeing a psychologist for depression and anxiety in August 2013 and was placed on disability for a month.
While the Commissioner accepted the board misunderstood the evidence relating to Vellani’s mental health, he found this misconception was not determinative: in other words, they would have made the same decision, even if they had not misunderstood the evidence.
The RCMP’s Conduct Authority Representative characterized Vellani’s actions as ““self-benefitting act of dishonesty done with the intent to support a fraudulent insurance claim.”
The commissioner concluded the board had taken Vellani’s work record and mental health into account as mitigating factors, but these did not outweigh the misconduct.
In his submissions for the judicial review, Vellani similarly claimed the RCMP Commissioner breached procedural fairness, perpetuated the board’s misconceptions of his work record and mental health issues, and did not properly analyze the board’s mistakes.
He argued the Commissioner did not allow him the opportunity to address the board’s additional allegations of distracted driving being responsible for the collision.
Vellani claimed these allegations were central in the board’s conclusion that he suffers from a “fundamental character flaw,” as it framed his decisions as trying to avoid accountability.
He argued, in fact, he was wearing a Bluetooth headset but the board never gave him adequate notice to respond to the allegations before releasing their decision.
Vellani additionally submitted that even though both the external review committee and the Commissioner recognized the conduct board made errors in relation to his mental wellness at the time of the incident, those appeal decisions failed to rectify this mistake.
Vellani claimed the “satisfactory” performance evaluations used were from a time when he was caught in a toxic work environment, and the commissioner failed to recognize the impact this had on his work.
He attempted to introduce new evidence regarding his work performance for the review, but this evidence was rejected by Justice Ahmed.
The respondents argued there was no direct link between Vellani’s mental state and the misconduct.
Justice Ahmed did find that some of Vellani’s arguments had merit but ruled that a breach of procedural fairness had not been established.
Unlike court decisions, decisions made by administrative bodies like the RCMP Commissioner can only be successfully appealed (or judicially reviewed) if they are unreasonable. For a decision to be found unreasonable, an applicant must show it contains flaws central to the case rather than peripheral mistakes in the decision.
Despite upholding the decision, Ahmed found that Vellani was probably right in saying the board had already reached a prejudicial conclusion about Vellani’s motivations at the time of the sanctions hearing before giving him an opportunity to address that issue and keep an open mind,. However, the Court reasoned it was unlikely Vellani’s arguments would have changed the conduct board’s decision.
Ahmed dismissed Vellani’s arguments around the board’s testimonial evidence, as the commissioner had noted its limitations and it was reasonable for the Commissioner to have upheld the decision.
The Court agreed with Vellani that the evidence about his mental health was misconstrued both by the Board and the Commissioner and this error was significant because such evidence could undermine the finding that Vellani suffered from a character flaw. However, this misconception of the evidence did not change the fact that Vellani’s psychologist could not clinically state his patient’s mental health caused a lapse in judgment, only that it could have been a contributing factor. Therefore, the decision could stand.
“Dr. Nemetz’s letter speaks for itself. Although Dr. Nemetz confirms the Applicant’s condition and stressors, she was unable to make a causal link between the applicant’s psychological state and his misconduct,” Ahmed stated.
“I do not find that there has been a breach of procedural fairness, and while the Conduct Appeal Decision is not without its flaws, it is reasonable overall,” Ahmed concluded.
Although the respondents requested that Vellani pay their legal costs, Ahmed declined to award costs.