Published August 16, 2023

NDP adds to Greenbelt complaint to integrity commissioner in light of auditor report

By Allison Jones in Toronto

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles is asking the province's integrity commissioner to consider within his Greenbelt investigation the premier and government staffers' reported use of personal phones and emails.

Stiles' request comes in the wake of last week's scathing auditor general's report into the government's decision to open up protected Greenbelt lands to housing development.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found that the process of selecting the 15 specific sites was not transparent, with all but one suggested by Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff, who was given packages at an industry event by two key developers.

Lysyk also found that political staff received emails from lobbyists on their personal accounts, sometimes forwarded emails from their government accounts to personal ones, contrary to public service guidelines, and were regularly deleting emails, contrary to the rules.

"These facts demonstrate the government’s pervasive disregard for transparency and proper record-keeping practices," Stiles wrote in a letter to integrity commissioner J. David Wake.

Stiles also asked the integrity commissioner to be aware of a Global News report that suggests Premier Doug Ford is using his personal cellphone for government business.

The news outlet requested through freedom-of-information laws the call records for Ford’s private cellphone number for one week in November 2022, when the government was under fire for using the notwithstanding clause to impose a contract on education workers.

Ford had said publicly he was returning calls "all night," but government officials told Global there were no calls made on the premier's government-issued cellphone during that one-week period.

The government is fighting Global's request for the call logs for Ford's personal cellphone, arguing that it has nothing to do with government business, the outlet reported.

Stiles called that troubling.

"(It raises) concerns that he is using a personal phone intentionally to avoid accountability through the Freedom of Information process," she wrote in her letter to Wake.

The integrity commissioner's Greenbelt ethics investigation is of Clark, not Ford, but Stiles said the phone records may be relevant in this probe.

"As telecommunications between the premier and Minister Clark are likely relevant to your investigation, and given our concerns regarding the government’s obfuscation on that point, we want to ensure that the premier’s use of his personal phone for official business and the records thereof have been disclosed to you," she wrote.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Wednesday that "there is mounting evidence that something happened here that broke the public trust."

"This is not Doug Ford's personal sandbox," Fraser said at a press conference. "He just doesn't get to make up all the rules, not telling anybody what he's doing. That's not the way that we're supposed to conduct ourselves in government. It should be openness and transparency."

Earlier this year, in declining to investigate a complaint from Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner that was similar to Stiles', Wake wrote that Ford and Clark told him the specific Greenbelt lands were selected for development by public servants who were subject to an enhanced confidentiality protocol.

However, Lysyk found that 14 of the 15 sites selected for removal were given to the team of civil servants by political staff. When most of the sites being considered for removal didn't meet environmental or agricultural criteria, the criteria were dropped, Lysyk said.

Ultimately, most of the land removed from the Greenbelt was owned by the developers who approached the chief of staff at the industry event, she said.

All told, the owners of the 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt could see their property values increase by more than $8.3 billion, Lysyk wrote.

Clark and Ford have both denied tipping off developers ahead of the public announcement. Ford said Friday that no one received preferential treatment.

The Integrity Commissioner of Ontario is also reviewing a request from Ford to look into Clark's chief of staff, Ryan Amato.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 16, 2023.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Arlyn McAdorey

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