Niagara Regional Police officers have been visiting pizzerias in the peninsula recently asking one important question: Where did you get your cheese?
It’s part of a larger internal investigation into cheese smuggling, allegedly by some members of their own force.
CBC News has learned from numerous police sources that charges are expected soon against a few officers who are allegedly involved in the movement of caseloads of cheese from the U.S. to sell to Canadian pizzerias and restaurants.
The alleged scam involves jamming cases of ‘brick’ cheese—used as a common pizza topping—into their vehicles to smuggle across the border. With cheese being as little as a third of the price in the U.S., drivers are making $1,000 to $2,000 a trip, according to numerous sources.
Canada Border Services Agency officials say anyone — officer or civilian — caught smuggling large shipments of cheese into Canada would be in violation of the Customs Act for failing to declare any pay duties on the controlled goods.
As well, CBSA says it would be a violation for failing to have proper permits and licences from both the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
The accused officers either face police act charges (internal discipline) for either discreditable conduct or neglect of duty or criminal code charges of breech of trust if any were found to have intentionally plotted to avoid customs and duties.
Mario Sebastiano, owner of Super Mario’s pizza in Port Colborne, told CBC News he was approached two years ago by a Fort Erie man offering to supply numerous cases of contraband U.S. cheese. The Fort Erie man, along with some police officers, are now at the centre of the cheese smuggling probe.
"He was gonna sell me a case for 150 bucks – normally its 240," Sebastiano said. "He can supply whatever I want. If I want five to six cases a week, he’d give me five to six cases because he can bring it to this side here, no problem."
Sebastiano says he tried a sample, admitting it was an attractive offer since his business buys more than $100,000 a year worth of cheese. But he says he turned it down because it was illegal – and the contraband cheese was inferior quality.
Among the numerous pizza shop owners questioned by Niagara Regional Police officers in recent weeks were the staff at Volcano Pizzeria in Fonthill, west of Niagara Falls.
"Cops came in here a couple of times asking questions about it," Brandon Elms told CBC News. "We get all our stuff legit. We thought it was a joke at first. Who is going to go around trying to sell smuggled cheese?
"The cheese bandits, the mozzarella mafia!"
But Albert Zappitelli who runs Zappis, a popular Niagara Falls pizzeria says higher Canadian cheese prices, due to restrictions by the Canadian Dairy Board, and strict controls on cheaper U.S. imports, are driving an underground economy.
"On a monthly basis we are approached by someone who wants to bring American cheese over the border and sell it to us," said Zappitelli. "What would their penalty be being caught at the bridge with six cases of cheese?
"It’s not like they’re going to put you in handcuffs and take you away."
The cheese smuggling investigation stems from information gathered from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) arrest in April of Niagara Regional Police constable Geoffrey Purdie in Buffalo on charges of conspiracy to smuggle more than half a million dollars in anabolic steroids and other drugs into Canada.
According to U.S. court documents, a joint Border Enforcement Task Force has been using surveillance and at least one confidential informant in an ongoing probe into the steroid allegations of Purdie and others, including civilians.
CBC News has been unable to confirm which specific officers will face charges, let alone whether Const. Purdie himself is directly linked to the cheese allegations. He has refused repeated requests for an interview.
The Niagara Regional Police Association won't discuss the allegations against the officers, but confirms a number of their members have been formally notified they are under internal investigation.
Jeff McGuire, Niagara’s new police chief, has refused to discuss recent shake-ups at the Fort Erie detachment or what further charges or discipline actions may be forthcoming. He has only confirmed the suspension of Const. Purdie due to allegations of drug smuggling.
"He’s been suspended with pay and our professional standards ground will and are conducting an investigation, … but we first have to allow the American investigation to continue and be completed," McGuire said last month.
McGuire also confirmed the suspension of an officer from Purdie's Fort Erie detachment following Purdie's arrest, but would not discuss why.