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Integrity commissioner prepping witness summonses in Greenbelt probe

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In Governance
Mar 17th, 2023
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Ontario’s integrity commissioner says he’ll conclude Greenbelt-focused inquiry before deciding whether or not to investigate the premier’s daughter’s wedding events
From OrilliaMatters, Charlie Pinkerton

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Ontario’s integrity commissioner is “preparing summonses for numerous witnesses to be interviewed” in his probe into the Greenbelt, he said in a report released Thursday.

J. David Wake added that his office has “required the production of documents from government and non-government” sources and it is already reviewing “extensive material” in his inquiry into the Ford government’s decision to remove land from the Greenbelt.

The information comes from an interim report on a request from NDP Leader Marit Stiles that he also investigate Premier Doug Ford over media reports that developers attended the premier’s daughter’s wedding festivities last year.

Wake said he is putting that request on hold as he investigates the prior related complaint from Stiles.

On Jan. 18, the integrity commissioner announced he was launching an official inquiry into Stiles’ first complaint, made in December. It focused on Housing Minister Steve Clark and the Greenbelt, and asked Wake to look into if MPPs’ ethics law on conflict of interest or disclosing insider information had been broken.

In the report he released on Thursday, Wake wrote that while he sees some “flaws” with Stiles’ second complaint, he’s “not prepared to dismiss it” due to its “overlap” with her first request. The commissioner instead is postponing his decision, “placing it in abeyance until I have completed… her first request,” he wrote.

Ian Stedman, an assistant professor at York University’s School of Public Policy and Administration who worked in the integrity commissioner’s office from 2011 to 2014, said it’s a unique approach by the commissioner.

It shows that the commissioner doesn’t believe that Stiles’ second complaint gave him enough information to launch an investigation on its own but the related Greenbelt probe could shed light on whether it could be “a real complaint with real legs,” he said.

The commissioner’s decision to use his legal power to compel witness testimony and documents suggests he believes he’d run into roadblocks if he tried a less aggressive approach, Stedman said.

He also commended the commissioner for explaining his reasons clearly to the public.

“It speaks to the commissioner’s self-reflecting on the importance of saying something because this is such an important topic to the public,” Stedman said.

Last fall, the Ford government proposed and finalized a plan to remove 7,400 acres in 15 different parcels of land from the Greenbelt for homes to be built on the land. It added 9,400 acres of land to it from elsewhere, which was land that was already under other environmental protections.

Developers had bought some of the removed land since the Ford government came into power in 2018, despite Ford saying publicly that year that his government “won’t touch the Greenbelt.”

A few months before the government’s Greenbelt changes, multiple developers were invited to and attended Ford’s daughter’s wedding festivities. This was only reported in February.

First, Global News reported on Feb. 9 that unnamed developers attended the premier’s daughter’s stag and doe, which Ford hosted at his home on Aug. 11.

The next day, Feb. 10, a Trillium reporter working with the Toronto Star reported that multiple specific developers, including one whose company owns land taken out of the Greenbelt, attended the premier’s daughter’s wedding on Sept. 25. Additional reporting on Feb. 23 disclosed that other conservative insiders, including a lobbyist working for a company seeking to redesignate more Greenbelt land, also attended Ford’s daughter’s wedding.

In her complaint about Ford’s daughter’s wedding festivities to the integrity commissioner, Stiles asked Wake to investigate whether Ford breached three separate parts of the Members’ Integrity Act — the ethics law for MPPs — including those on conflict of interest, influence, and gifts.

Wake wrote in his Thursday report that Stiles’ “concerns do not fit easily into an analysis of whether there are reasonable and probable grounds” that Ford breached MPP ethics law.

On the point that attendees of the Aug. 11 stag and doe paid $150 admission, which Ford has confirmed, the integrity commissioner determined the premier did not violate “the gift rule” of MPPs. Wake references both the premier’s denial as well as the “very specific” scope of the rule, which “does not apply to gifts received from third parties to an adult child of the (MPP).”

Wake also addresses part of Stiles’ complaint citing Global News’ reporting from unnamed sources that some guests at the Aug. 11 party felt pressured to attend. Referring to a Trilliumstory about an email obtained from an OPP detective looking into the broader matter, the integrity commissioner said he’s in a “similar situation” by lacking specific witnesses.

In addressing Stiles’ complaint on the conflict-of-interest grounds, the integrity commissioner referenced a determination by one of his predecessors that “the (Members’ Integrity) Act does not concern itself with a perceived conflict of interest as opposed to an actual conflict.” Wake also raised that while he has encouraged MPPs to clarify in legislation if appearances of conflicts of interest should constitute a rule break, “nothing was ever done” to firm up the law.

“Notwithstanding some of the flaws I have noted in Ms. Stiles’s February 23, 2023, request, I am not prepared to dismiss it at this point since there is an overlap to some extent with the issue being determined in her first request,” Wake wrote in his report’s conclusion, adding that he’s “placing it in abeyance” until the investigation he’s already launched into the Greenbelt land swap is completed.

Stiles said in a statement on Thursday afternoon that she was “pleased to see that the Integrity Commissioner has gathered additional material and is preparing summonses for a number of witnesses to interview related to my complaint.”

“We look forward to his report,” added the NDP leader.

—With files from Jessica Smith Cross

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