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N.L. hastily approved ride-hailing application from man accused of sex crime

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — An application submitted by a man accused of sexual assault to provide Newfoundland and Labrador's first ride-hailing operation was approved in just one day, according to emails obtained through access to information legislation.
Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St.John's is shown in a file photo. Emails show an application for Newfoundland and Labrador's first ride-hailing licence submitted by a man accused of sexual assault was approved by the province in just one day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sarah Smellie

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — An application submitted by a man accused of sexual assault to provide Newfoundland and Labrador's first ride-hailing operation was approved in just one day, according to emails obtained through access to information legislation.

The messages show the submission from Yosief Tesfamicael, owner of Redsea Riding, included an eight-page company policy that was heavily copied from Uber's website.

He wrote to the provincial government on Jan. 16 at 10:01 a.m. to say he'd submitted the application. By 1:16 p.m. the next day, he had been approved.

"Please note that you can start operations immediately," wrote Kristina Cull, deputy registrar with the motor registration division of the province's Digital Government Department. "Thank you and congratulations."

Six charges were filed against Tesfamicael in October 2023, according to a case summary report from the province’s Supreme Court last month. It says he has pleaded not guilty to the offences, which include sexual assault, sexual interference and unlawfully making sexually explicit material available to a child. The document says the case is set to go to trial later this year.

The accusations were first reported by local news outlet VOCM after the province announced on Jan. 19 the awarding of the licence to Tesfamicael's company, and then days later suspended that licence citing "new information" about the company.

The Canadian Press spoke with Tesfamicael on Jan. 19 about his plans to bring an Uber-like service to the St. John's region, but he had no comment when contacted again after his licence suspension was announced, nor did he provide comment when reached Wednesday.

Provincial regulations require anyone applying for a licence to operate a "transportation network company" to prove they have obtained certified criminal record checks for all potential drivers. The application form completed by Tesfamicael only asks that companies supply their procedures related to criminal checks, and that they provide confirmation "acceptable to the registrar" that they have done such checks.

Tesfamicael provides two assurances in emails that criminal checks were done on his drivers. In one message sent Jan. 16, after he submitted his application, he writes, "I confirm that all the drivers on my list, which I submitted today, have been confirmed with police clearance and abstract clearance."

In another, on the same day, he says he has on file in the company's office the drivers' licences, police clearances and drivers' abstracts. There is no indication in the documents provided by the government that those clearances, or proof they exist, was submitted to the government.

The Redsea policy he submitted tells drivers, "You can use the in-app Emergency Button to call authorities to get help if you need it. The app displays your location and trip details, so you can quickly share them with emergency services." The exact same text appears on Uber's website.

The policy also says the company will "provide a removable Redsea sticker to be displayed on your vehicle whenever you’re online. If the sticker is not properly displayed, or if it's not visible while you're driving with the Driver app (day or night), you could be issued a fine by local authorities." The same text appears on Uber's website, with the company names switched.

Redsea's policy includes a requirement regarding "Ontario vehicle insurance" and a discussion of the situation of drivers with addresses in Barrie, Ont., which are repeated on Uber's website.

The borrowing from Uber was first reported Wednesday by SaltWire, which also obtained the policy.

The information package provided about Redsea directs anyone looking for more information about the company to a website for Outsource Digital Projects, which is a marketing and web design firm based in Pakistan. The firm's website contains no information about Redsea.

The emails show Tesfamicael had been in contact with government officials since at least November to express his interest in applying for a ride-hailing licence.

Sarah Stoodley, minister of digital government, sent him a letter on Nov. 30, in response to an email asking about the status of legislation that would allow ride-hailing operations in the province.

"We are working toward a very aggressive timeline, with the intent to having these regulations implemented, and the licensing application available, early in the new year," Stoodley wrote.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government said last year that it intended to build a “provincial approach” to ride-hailing. It made new rules and began accepting licence applications in December.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2024.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press