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Ethics watchdog explains controversial ruling that ‘cleared’ Ford

In Council Watch
Mar 18th, 2023
‘The opinion provided… is only as good as the information provided to me by the member or their staff,’ J. David Wake wrote in a report
From OrilliaMatters, Charlie Pinkerton, March 18 2023.
Photo: flickr licence cc by-nc-nd2.0

Ontario’s integrity commissioner is clearing the air.

The idea that the province’s ethics watchdog had “cleared” the premier for hosting a stag-and-doe party for his daughter that developers and lobbyists paid to attend has baffled some Ontarians.

In a report released Thursday, J. David Wake noted the “confusion in some quarters” about that opinion and explained why he gave it — and why it was only as good as the information the premier’s office had given him.

In January, the commissioner issued an opinion to Premier Doug Ford that found, based on what Ford and his staff retroactively shared about the wedding events, nothing indicated the premier broke the ethics law for MPPs.

Since then, Ford has frequently repeated that the commissioner’s opinion amounts to him being “cleared” of wrongdoing.

“He cleared it 1,000 per cent, not 999, 1,000 per cent,” Ford said on Feb. 10.

Wake’s opinion has been an eyebrow-raiser within the broader drama around developers’ involvement in Ford’s daughter’s wedding festivities last summer, which include the $150-a-ticket stag-and-doe party Ford hosted, and the wedding where one of the multiple developer guests now stands to benefit from the government’s Greenbelt land swap.

Wake released a 10-page interim report on Thursday announcing he is delaying a decision on whether to investigate the wedding events until after he finishes a related inquiry into the Greenbelt changes. In the ongoing investigation, the integrity commissioner’s office is “reviewing extensive material” and “preparing summonses for numerous witnesses,” the report said.

Much of Wake’s interim report was dedicated to unravelling procedural and legal considerations that led him to issue the opinion he gave Ford on Jan. 31 about the stag and doe and wedding.

“There seems to be confusion in some quarters between the public opinions I must give following an inquiry… and the confidential opinions I routinely provide to members, at their request,” Wake wrote.

Section 28 of the Members’ Integrity Act allows for MPPs to seek an “opinion” from the integrity commissioner about whether something they’re considering doing — or have already done— is a breach of the ethics law.

The commissioner’s report says he’s provided almost 2,500 opinions in the seven years he’s been Ontario’s integrity commissioner. But they are not exhaustive investigations.

In the same timespan, Wake has only conducted 22 inquiries under the law, which can only be started following a request by an MPP or cabinet. For example, Wake’s ongoing probe into the Greenbelt that he’s preparing summonses for is a section 31 inquiry.

The integrity commissioner doesn’t have the same investigatory powers when asked to provide an MPP with an opinion as he does when conducting an inquiry.

When asked to give an opinion to an MPP, the commissioner typically relies only on information from them or their staff.

“To a large extent, the opinion provided under section 28 is only as good as the information provided to me by the member or their staff,” Wake wrote in the report he released on Thursday.

In the case of the opinion on Ford’s daughter’s wedding festivities, Wake wrote that the premier’s staff reached out to him about it on Jan. 25, “concerning a media inquiry they had received.”

That inquiry came from this Trillium reporter, who was working for a different publication at the time.

Ford’s staff asked to arrange a call between Wake and the premier and sent the integrity commissioner a copy of the media request. The Trillium is uniquely positioned to be able to release the questions in this request, sent to Ford’s office on Jan. 24, in full.

Here is the list of questions Ford’s office was asked:

1.    Our reporting indicates Mario Cortellucci, founder of the Cortel Group, and Carmine Nigro, president and CEO of CRAFT Development Corporation and current chair of the LCBO board, along with their wives, sat at the premier’s table at Kayla Ford’s wedding reception.
Shakir Rehmatullah, founder and president of Flato Developments, and Chris Bratty, of Remington Group, were at the wedding but at different tables.
Mario Cortellucci’s sons, Peter and Stefano, were also there, seated at different tables. Do you dispute any of this?

2.    Were any developers or lobbyists invited to a stag and doe, or pre-wedding celebration of any kind, for Doug Ford’s daughter, Kayla?

3.    Did any developers or lobbyists contribute financially to Doug Ford’s daughter’s wedding, either at a stag and doe or pre-wedding celebration?

4.    Documents we’ve received via FOI from the Cabinet Office, along with the hansard from Aug. 11, provide no indication of Premier Doug Ford’s whereabouts on that day. Was it on this date that Premier Doug Ford’s daughter’s stag and doe, or pre-wedding celebration, took place? If not, where was Premier Doug Ford, and what was he doing, on Aug. 11?

5.    Did any developers or lobbyists provide gifts to Premier Doug Ford’s daughter at her Sep. 25 wedding?

6.    Were any of the government’s development policies discussed between the premier, or any government staff, and developers or lobbyists at the wedding, or at any stag and doe or other pre-wedding celebration? Please explain.

7.    Was the government’s Greenbelt land swap discussed between the premier and land developers or lobbyists at Premier Doug Ford’s daughter’s wedding, or at any stag and doe or pre-wedding celebration held before the wedding?

8.    Does the premier believe it to be inappropriate in any way that developers who have directly benefited from the government’s decisions attended Doug Ford’s daughter’s wedding? Why or why not?

In a conversation between the integrity commissioner and premier, Ford told Wake he “stayed clear” of planning his daughter’s wedding, leaving it to his wife, daughters, and their friends, the commissioner’s report said.

“(Ford) said the four named developers and the sons of one of them were guests at the wedding because they were friends of the Ford family, in some cases for decades.”

“Some developers and lobbyists may have attended the pre-wedding celebration, but Premier Ford maintained that he was not keeping track of who may have attended the event, noting that most of the people were friends of his daughter and future son-in-law,” added Wake’s report.

The premier denied receiving any money from either developers or lobbyists “for the wedding, either at the stag and doe or at any other time,” Wake wrote. The report  also stated that Ford said he wasn’t aware of any gifts to his daughter and son-in-law, and that no government business was discussed at either event.

Wake noted the ethics law does not cover gifts made to the adult children of MPPs, nor does it prohibit legislators from engaging in an “apparent” conflict of interest. According to the integrity commissioner, an actual conflict of interest would occur if they use their influence to improperly further their interest, or someone else’s.

Ford also told the commissioner that he “saw nothing wrong” with developers being invited to the wedding, given it was “a private, family matter unconnected to his role in government,” the report said.

“Viewed through the lens of the Act, I offered Premier Ford my opinion that there was nothing wrong with having invited personal friends, who happen to be government stakeholders, to either event, provided the provisions of the Act were adhered to, which includes not revealing confidential government information,” the integrity commissioner wrote.

Ford gave Wake permission to release his full opinion, which is required for the commissioner to publish it. Here’s the opinion itself, which was attached as an appendix to the interim report the commissioner released on Thursday.

read here

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