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Fall from grace

Cover Story
|Written By Bruce Livesey

He was ambitious and well connected, generous and popular, but booze and pills led to a downward spiral resulting in a guilty plea stemming from an RCMP money-laundering sting.

At the pinnacle of his career, Peter Shoniker met the pope and could count generals, police chiefs, judges, and politicians among his coterie of friends and acquaintances. At his nadir, he was a shattered man sitting in a Toronto courtroom listening to his own lawyer, the redoubtable Eddie Greenspan, explain to a judge that his client was someone who lived in a “genuine fantasy world” — sometimes referred to as “Pete’s World” by one psychiatrist — because he frequently couldn’t distinguish fact from fiction when he was stoked on booze and pills and flummoxed by a sleeping disorder. Which, in recent years, was pretty much most of the time.

To drive home this point, Greenspan then played a portion of a taped phone conversation between Shoniker and an undercover RCMP officer in which Shoniker was heard saying: “When I was a prosecutor I got shot, and I have some bad spinal cord injuries. So it takes about a half an hour, 45 minutes every morning to do my stretching and shit like that. Which is why I’m, you know, decorated, knighted by the Queen and knighted by the Pope and everybody and decorated by the American government.”

Greenspan then made it clear his client was never shot. Neither was he knighted and decorated, for that matter.

It was Aug. 18, 2006, and the 49-year-old Shoniker was witnessing the pieces of his life being publicly dissected in a Toronto courtroom. Out in full force was the media, eager to hear the prurient details of how one of Canada’s most well-connected lawyers — someone who glided easily among the powerbrokers of law enforcement, the judicial system, and Ontario’s Tory party — had plummeted from grace so spectacularly. In fact, on this morning, a couple of his prominent friends were in attendance offering their support, namely former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino and retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie. Everyone wanted to hear just how Shoniker managed to entangle himself in an RCMP sting that nabbed him for laundering $750,000, $50,000 of which he stole.

Shoniker was pleading guilty and the hearing was for Justice Douglas Cunningham’s benefit to determine an appropriate sentence, based on whether he was convinced Shoniker was either a Machiavellian thief who clearly knew what he was doing, or merely an alcoholic braggart — evidenced by his boasts of being “untouchable” by police and “no fucking judge” would ever authorize a wiretap against him — who had fallen on hard times and was vulnerable to the RCMP’s overtures.

The hearing was emotional and revealing, delving into the many riddles behind his rise and fall, with Shoniker emerging as an enigmatic mass of contradictions, someone who could be enormously generous as well as unethical and ruthless. “He’s known to colour the truth a lot, that’s part of his persona; he was always a bit of a braggart and he let people believe he was something he never was,” admits Ron Sandelli, a close friend and former police officer who’s the Toronto Blue Jays’ head of security. “He thinks that, too, people won’t be forgiving over what happened. Those who do know the truth are very forgiving and saying, ‘There for the grace of God go I.’”

*     *     *

Peter Shoniker grew up knowing and tasting power. He was one of four children sired by Edward “Eddie” Shoniker who was an influential player in Ontario Tory circles as well as in the transportation world, rising to become chair of the provincial transport board in the late 1950s. Twice Eddie was honoured by the Queen for “valuable service to the nation.” He was also a bagman for the Tory party, part of the “Catholic mafia” that held enormous sway in the policing, judicial, and political spheres of Ontario’s post-war establishment. The Shoniker household was regularly filled with cops, police chiefs, and Tory politicians. “[Eddie] had close relationships with former chiefs and was always a great supporter of the police,” recalls former Toronto police chief William McCormack, a family friend who met Peter Shoniker when he was seven years old.

All of which must have affected young Peter. He attended Catholic schools, including De La Salle College, run by the Catholic Brothers of the Christian Schools. McCormack says Shoniker always wanted to be a barrister and was clearly besotted by law enforcement. In the ’70s, he worked the radio room at Toronto’s police headquarters.

But what he really wanted to be was a Crown attorney. While attending the University of Ottawa’s law school in the early ’80s, he also displayed his knack for networking in rarified circles when he organized a law symposium at the Chateau Laurier Hotel that was attended by then-justice minister Mark McGuigan, justice Charles Dubin, Ontario’s attorney general Roy McMurtry, Metro Toronto police chief Jack Ackroyd, and Shaun MacGrath, chairman of the Ontario Police Commission, among others. Shoniker went on to article with the attorney general’s office in Toronto, where he continued to work after he was called to the bar in 1985. While there, his car’s vanity licence plates read “Jail4U.”

By all accounts, Shoniker was a hale-fellow-well-met sort of person and networker extraordinaire. He had the propensity for telling tales and embellishing the truth. In later years, one of the business cards he handed out at posh city restaurants identified him as “Sir Peter A. E. Shoniker” who was identified as a “Counsellor/Special Envoy” to the United Nations and that he was a “KHS” and “OBE.” A newspaper investigation found all of these credentials to be bogus.

Shoniker also began to style himself as a terrorism expert, getting quoted in media stories on the issue. But during a 1986 terrorism conference in Quebec, where he wore a bulletproof vest, Shoniker gave a talk in which he claimed a shadowy terrorist group called Direct Action, with members trained in Libya, South Yemen, and Lebanon, had 780 members in at least seven secret cells across Canada and were poised to launch political assassinations and kidnappings, becoming “the greatest threat posed by terrorists in Canada today.” Shoniker even alleged that Direct Action was providing safe haven for 14 fugitives of West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang. When reporters asked him for some sources for his startling claims, he replied, “I can’t tell you that. You’ve got to take my reputation.”

The problem was he had no reputation as a terrorism expert. Yoram Hamizrachi, a former Israel Defence Forces commander who was then co-director of the Winnipeg-based Counter-Terror Study Centre, says there was no factual basis for anything Shoniker said about Direct Action. Moreover, Hamizrachi says Shoniker was never recognized as someone who had ever published or was eminent in this field. “If he was a heavyweight player, one would have heard his name more than once,” he

Clearly Shoniker’s bosses at the Crown’s office were not amused either. After his comments about Direct Action were universally condemned as being alarmist, he was briefly suspended for a month and then shipped off to a remote Crown office to work. In 1987, he left the Crown’s office and joined the practice of Toronto criminal lawyer Fred Fedorsen to form Fedorsen Shoniker.

Fedorsen, who did not return messages from Canadian Lawyer, said last year in a letter submitted to the court that during the 10 years of their partnership, “My practice developed in a way not possible without Peter’s hard work, dedication, and networking.” Indeed, their firm was soon retained as counsel to the Niagara Regional Board of Commissioners of Police that was examining police wrongdoing within the Niagara Regional Police Force.

But the next big case that Shoniker landed would test him like no other. In 1991, his firm was retained by the Roman Catholic Church when accusations of sexual abuse were leveled against some of its priests. From the 1890s onwards, a Catholic sect called Brothers of the Christian Schools ran reform schools for boys in Ontario. It’s believed thousands of boys were raped and abused by the priests who were running at least two of the institutions. One of the victims was David McCann, who was sent to the St. Joseph’s Training School for Boys in Alfred, Ont., in 1958 at age 12. After the Mount Cashel scandal in Newfoundland broke in 1989, McCann and other former students of the reform schools finally decided to go public with their allegations against the Christian Brothers. The Ontario Provincial Police began an investigation, eventually resulting in 30 priests being charged.

From the get-go, there was an attempt to broker a settlement between the church, government, and victims without going to court. However, represented by Shoniker and lawyer Melville O’Donohue, the Toronto Christian Brothers — who had run one of the schools — resisted this process. The lawyers simply did not believe the allegations. In fact, Shoniker had become convinced that McCann was “just the most compulsive and consummate liar I have ever seen” according to an interview he gave to an Ottawa Citizen reporter.

Today, McCann says Shoniker ended up doing tremendous harm to the victims (of which 1,600 came forward). “I don’t have a lot of respect for him,” seethes McCann. “He abused a lot of people and caused a lot of pain.” McCann feels that Shoniker was responsible for delaying the abuse case from being settled for years, and when the Toronto order finally joined in, it was done in a way that violated the agreed-upon terms. “Peter got the Toronto brothers to ignore that agreement and say, ‘To hell with you,’” says McCann, “and so we sued them for breach of fiduciary duty and trust and we won. . . . And well over $1.3 million got distributed back to victims. And I basically considered that money had been stolen from the victims and that was orchestrated by Peter Shoniker.”

Shoniker’s intense dislike for McCann took a particularly dark turn on at least one occasion. In 1992, during the trial of one priest who had abused him, McCann testified against the man. But according to Darcy Henton, a journalist who covered the case for the Toronto Star (and wrote a book on the Christian Brothers’ scandal with McCann), Shoniker ensured that a former drug dealer by the name of Gary Provost was brought to court specifically to unnerve McCann by sitting in his line of sight while he was testifying. Four years earlier, in his capacity as an undercover agent for the police, McCann had helped put Provost behind bars. “[This tactic] went beyond what one would anticipate a defence lawyer would do in the course of his job, “ says Henton. “I was a little bit appalled at the way [Shoniker] was proceeding with his defence.”

According to Fred Fedorsen, the Christian Brothers case took a toll on Shoniker. He worked on it steadily until 1997, often putting in such long hours “that he became almost alienated from our firm,” wrote Fedorsen last year. “One day, without warning or consultation, Peter resigned his retainer with the Catholic Church.” Shoniker’s sudden decision to quit the case caused a rift between the two lawyers and their partnership quickly deteriorated. They parted ways that same year.

And then this stunner: during last year’s plea hearing, psychiatrist Dr. Paul Fedoroff testified that Shoniker himself was abused by Christian Brothers at the De La Salle school he attended as a teen. However, Shoniker never reported the abuse to any authorities and, given his proclivity for invention, it’s difficult to know what to make of it. McCann, for one, doesn’t believe
Shoniker’ claim.

After breaking with Fedorsen, Shoniker went into the investment business with Brad Griffiths, a prominent Toronto corporate financier. “They were down in Vegas looking at things,” recalls retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie. Shoniker was also dabbling as a Tory and police backroom wheeler-dealer — in 1999, he helped engineer Julian Fantino getting the plum job of Toronto’s police chief, and later he raised money for Ernie Eves, who became Ontario’s premier in 2002.

But the cut-throat financial world didn’t suit Shoniker and he and Griffiths bitterly parted ways a few years ago. Apparently, this setback sent Shoniker into a nosedive. By 2003 his drinking and prescription drug use had spiraled out of control. His sleeping disorder grew worse. “He started lying constantly, to a point where I jokingly referred to a large part of his daily words/stories as ‘Pete’s World,’” said Fedoroff in a report read at Shoniker’s hearing last year. Shoniker’s marriage was in trouble as well and his descent was hastened when he received a call from an undercover RCMP officer in May of 2003.

*     *     *

The origins of the RCMP sting began when the Toronto Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), which investigates organized crime, discovered a relationship between Toronto bar owner Jonathan Vrozos and some underworld characters. But what really alarmed the unit, which is led by the RCMP, was when they discovered that Vrozos had a relationship with Calvin Barry, a senior and high-profile assistant Crown attorney. “Barry oversaw important files — everything about biker investigations and the gambling squad passed across his desk,” says former RCMP staff sergeant Larry Tronstad, who was a leader of the CFSEU, in explaining why this relationship with Vrozos was so disturbing. The unit decided to target Barry in a corruption probe, dubbed Project OJUST, which got underway in early 2003.

Which is how Cpl. Al Lewis, an undercover RCMP officer, met with Vrozos on the pretense that $250,000 that Lewis was responsible for had been seized at the Toronto airport and needed to be retrieved with the help of a lawyer. Vrozos suggested meeting with Barry. On May 2, 2003, the three men got together, where Lewis “stated that the money had been skimmed from union pension funds and that they were stolen,” according to the agreed statements of fact in the Shoniker case. “Barry did not make any comment or react in any way to Lewis’ admission regarding the funds and said he would contact Lewis with the name of someone to call.” The next day Barry phoned Lewis suggesting the names of three lawyers, one of whom was his old pal Peter Shoniker.

According to Tronstad, the investigation into Barry came to an end then and there due to resistance within the Crown’s office to press it further. Nevertheless, after Shoniker was arrested, Barry was immediately removed from prosecuting cases and soon left the Crown’s employ. He is now in private practice and did not return phone calls seeking comment.

On May 8, 2003, Lewis met with Shoniker and the sting was underway. Over the course of several meetings, Shoniker boasted about his stature in the community and his ability to help Lewis. He remarked at one point that a native man worked for him and could transport banker boxes of cash. “I can give you an Indian who runs money who will take the fucking fall,” said Shoniker. On another occasion, he told Lewis that there was not a “fucking judge” in Toronto who would grant authorization to wiretap Shoniker’s phone lines, and that he was “untouchable, untouchable, untouchable by the police.” Shoniker said he could move $1 million weekly with no problem. Lewis, meanwhile, always made it clear the money he wanted laundered was stolen or the result of drug deals.

Shoniker managed to secure the release of the initial $250,000 and had it laundered. Lewis provided more cash to be cleansed, a total of $750,000, which the lawyer put through an American bank account that was controlled by the police. Shoniker even dragooned one of his former clients, an Iranian-born jeweller, to help him with the laundering. At one point, he pocketed $50,000 of the funds, claiming that he used the money to give to various people to grease the wheels in the scheme. Shoniker also asked a friend whose wife worked as a detective for the Toronto police to have her do a computer search on Lewis to find out more about him.

The sting drew to a close in December of 2003. Shoniker and the jeweller were arrested the following summer. They agreed to plead guilty and take their lumps. Last fall, Justice Cunningham gave Shoniker a 15-month sentence, which he served in Mimico correctional facility. He was released earlier this year and declined requests from Canadian Lawyer to speak about his life and case.

*     *     *

There’s another side to Shoniker, though. His friends and family attest to his extraordinary generosity. During his plea hearing last year, 17 of them wrote glowing letters, many detailing his selfless acts of charity and kindness. There was Brent Burns, who said he, “lived in darkness and on the savage side of society” prior to meeting Shoniker in the early ’90s. A single father with three children, Burns was encouraged by Shoniker to attend university and eventually law school and become a barrister. “With Peter’s help I realized that I no longer had to live the way I did,” wrote Burns. Another letter, from plastic surgeon Dr. Lloyd Carlsen, said, “Mr. Shoniker has always been a beacon of integrity and human compassion for me and my family.”

In another instance, Erin Shoniker, his niece, wrote that when she developed an untreatable optic disease that leads to blindness, Shoniker was the first to notice the problem and attended every one of her medical appointments. Another family member said, “There is a bit of a standing joke in our family: if you have a problem, worry, or a sick friend or relative call 1-800-Shoniker.”

In the late ’80s, Shoniker and other prominent members of the justice system created the Canadian Abuse Prevention Foundation, which resulted in what is known as “Christopher’s Law,” designed to keep tabs on convicted sex offenders. He’s donated money to orphanages in Guyana, and was active in the Roman Catholic Church, which led him to meeting Pope John Paul II. He once defended MacKenzie for the grand sum of a loonie when MacKenzie was asked to appear before the Somalia Inquiry in the mid-’90s. “We weren’t begged or dragged to the courthouse to support a friend who had fallen on hard times,” says MacKenzie of his appearances at last year’s plea hearings.

*     *     *

Was Shoniker, in the end, worth going after? Given his prominence in the legal community and his extensive contacts and network of friends in the justice system, as well as the history of some lawyers laundering cash for criminals, the RCMP felt they had no choice to see whether Shoniker was a money launderer.

But Ron Sandelli, who was a Toronto police officer for 37 years and has known Shoniker for three decades, sees it differently. “I didn’t think the investigation of Peter Shoniker was warranted,” he declares. “Peter was a blowhard and at that time in his career it was the downside for him. I hadn’t spoken to him for a long time. I think there were other influences like alcohol and other situations, and he was probably very hard up for a buck.”

Sandelli points out there was no evidence that Shoniker had ever laundered money before. “If you go after a drug trafficker and you do a sting on a drug trafficker, it’s because you have evidence to believe he is a drug trafficker but you just can’t catch him,” says Sandelli. “In this case, if you are telling me that Peter Shoniker is a loan shark or money launderer, that is not the case. Never was and never will be.”

  • RE: Fall from grace

    Joanie Green
    I dated Peter while he was falling from grace... interesting study in human behavior...
  • Re: Peter Shonicker

    Brent Burns
    Peter Shonicker will be reinstated by the Law Society of Upper Canada He will be supported by prominent peoplo including members of the Law Society. Its all in the works.