Cameron Ortis was an intelligent, detail-oriented person who tended to work alone and rarely got involved in the nitty-gritty of his team’s intelligence projects, a former RCMP colleague told the jury in the trial of his former boss.
Ortis, 51, now faces multiple counts of breaking Canada’s secrecy act by sharing special operational information.
For the second day in a row, the court on Wednesday released a transcript of what Crown witness Dan Morris told the courtroom behind closed doors.
A consortium of media organizations that includes CBC News fought the move to keep Morris’s testimony confidential, calling it an egregious restriction on open courts. The consortium lost. Other details of the secrecy measure are covered by a publication ban.
Morris, who joined the RCMP in 2003, worked as Ortis’s second in command at the RCMP’s operations research (OR) unit. The jury has heard the unit was separate from the force’s criminal investigations and was meant to brief senior leadership on emerging threats based on intelligence gathered by Canada and its allies, sometimes referred to as “high-side information.”
Morris eventually succeeded Ortis as director of the OR in 2015.
According to the redacted transcript, Crown prosecutor John MacFarlane asked Morris on Monday afternoon about Ortis’s management style.
Morris, who was hired by Ortis, said the accused was focused largely on human resource management and the unit’s finances.
“I don’t think I ever saw any intelligence product produced by Mr. Ortis,” he said, according to the transcript.
“[He] tended to focus more on the big picture issues, strategic issues. And he tended to do most of this stuff on his own. Yeah, maybe I’ll leave it there.”
Morris said Ortis delegated intelligence research projects and usually got involved only when the unit was about to brief senior decision makers within the RCMP.
“But in terms of the actual development of these projects, working with the partners, going over to CSIS and going over to CSE, other partner agencies, actually developing these projects, that was rare for him to do,” he said.
“Which was in keeping with his role as director. That wasn’t his job, to be developing intelligence research projects.”
Morris says Ortis never said he was working undercover
The Crown alleges Ortis shared special operational information with individuals who were on the RCMP’s radar as part of an international money laundering investigation. According to reports entered into evidence, police were tracking three men in the Toronto area for potential connections to Altaf Khanani, a Pakistani businessman accused by the U.S. State Department of laundering billions of dollars for organized crime and terrorist outfits.
He is also accused of leaking special operational information to Vincent Ramos, the head of a company that was accused of selling encrypted phones to criminals.
The defence team said Ortis has a “compelling story” to tell and that he had the “authority” to do everything that he did.
Morris, who said he used to drive Ortis to work sometimes, told the jury the accused never told him he was working on an undercover operation.
He said his former boss worked long hours during his first few years in the position.
“He was very often the first in to the office and often the last out,” he said. “I’d say that began to change around 2013, where he seemed to keep more of his own schedule. He would come in maybe a bit later, maybe leave a bit earlier. He might say he was attending a meeting somewhere downtown.”
MacFarlane asked Morris if he considered Ortis to be intelligent, detail-oriented and organized. Morris said he did.
The Crown also asked Morris if Ortis was a runner.
“At one point, he told me that he ran about 14 kilometres a day, and that he would do this for about 14 days straight, and take one day off of running,” he said.
MacFarlane asked Morris if he could tell if Ortis was running during the work day as well.
Morris said he didn’t know.
The defence team has not yet laid out its case in court. Ortis’s lawyers have told reporters they will look at the chain of command, the domestic and global threats facing Canada at the time and “the urgency of the situation.”
Under cross-examination, which spilled into Tuesday morning, defence lawyer Mark Ertel asked Morris if he had heard the term “primacy of operations.”
Morris said he understood the phrase to mean taking action was to be a priority for the RCMP.
“So, instead of just talking about things, actually doing things,” he said.
Ertel’s line of questioning then touched on the war between Israel and Hamas.
He asked Morris if he’s followed reports about Iran’s financial backing of Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are considered terrorist entities by the federal government.
“There have been media reports of that for quite some time, yes,” said Morris.
Ertel asked if the RCMP was concerned about Iran’s ability to evade international sanctions and finance terrorism. Morris said it wasn’t a file he worked but he believed the RCMP had concerns.
“In the post 9/11 world, with the new approach of getting ahead of threats and trying to stop the threats, it would be a very significant threat, both to Canada, and I guess other parts of the world, if it turned out that money was being laundered in Toronto and it was winding up in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard,” said Ertel.
“That would be a significant problem and threat, right?”
Morris said yes.
The jury has already heard that OR was set up to be separate from criminal investigations to prevent top-secret information from being exposed in open court.
Under cross-examination, Morris agreed with Ertel that RCMP senior leaders valued stopping illegal activity before it happened, not just arresting suspects after the fact.
“If you have that kind of high-side information that can be used in that way, to disrupt in some way, for example, a money laundering network … with banking measures or something … if you have that, and you can do that, then you can use that information to address a threat without ever arresting somebody, right?” asked Ertel.
Morris agreed, according to the transcript.
Later in the transcript he also agreed that Khanani was well-known to the RCMP.
“With a connection to Iran?” asked Ertel.
Morris said he didn’t know.
Morris not happy with organized crime mandate
Morris said that when he was first hired, Ortis told him the operations research unit was meant to be a pilot project.
He said the unit’s existence caused friction between other intelligence units within the RCMP which “took some exception to the attention we were getting from senior management.”
Morris told the court he “wasn’t happy” when the OR’s mandate expanded from counterterrorism to include transnational organized crime.
“You tried to maintain the national security work that you were doing, and others began to do the transnational organized crime?” Ertel said.
“That’s accurate, yes,” said Morris.
The transcript ends with court breaking for lunch Tuesday. A transcript of the afternoon’s testimony have not yet been released to media.