Another Ontario watchdog is taking a closer look at the province’s Greenbelt changes after an audit found political staff deleted records and used personal accounts to email lobbyists about the protected area.

In a statement, the Office of Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner told The Narwhal it is considering “potential next steps” related to the explosive report by auditor general Bonnie Lysyk into how the provincial government chose to allow development on 15 pieces of the protected Greenbelt.

If she launches an investigation, Information and Privacy Commissioner Patricia Kosseim would be the latest provincial watchdog to examine the widening scandal for the Ford government, which is also facing several probes from the province’s integrity commissioner over its ties to developers, as well as a possible police investigation.

The RCMP also confirmed on Wednesday that they were reviewing potential “irregularities” regarding changes to the Greenbelt following a referral from the Ontario Provincial Police. The OPP said they had referred the matter to the RCMP to avoid “any potential perceived conflict of interest.”

The flurry of police statements came less than a day after Ford’s office said it had accepted the resignation of Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato. Lysyk’s report had found Amato was responsible for choosing 92 per cent of the Greenbelt land that was opened for development, but in a resignation letter obtained by the Globe and Mail, Amato said he had been “unfairly depicted.”

Amato didn’t respond to an email from The Narwhal.

Lysyk’s audit, released earlier this month, concluded the government gave “preferential treatment” to a group of well-connected developers. It also found political staff in the government had “regularly” deleted emails and said disposing of emails related to the Greenbelt changes would be contrary to provincial record-keeping laws.

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We’re investigating Ontario’s environmental cuts
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

Political staff also used personal email accounts to talk to lobbyists and conduct government business, even forward messages between personal and government accounts, which would go against provincial guidelines, the audit concluded.

In a statement to The Narwhal, the information commissioner’s office said it “will be meeting” with Lysyk’s office to discuss the findings of her audit in “greater detail,” and to determine “potential next steps.”

“We cannot provide additional details at this time but we would be pleased to follow up with you when there are further developments regarding this matter,” the office said.

Becky Fong, a spokesperson for Lysyk’s office, said the auditor general cannot comment.
The information and privacy commissioner is a watchdog who oversees how well public institutions in Ontario follow record-keeping rules, among other things. The office investigates potential breaches of those laws. (It also decides appeals of freedom of information requests.)

Outgoing Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk poses by a railing inside an office atrium
Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk was the first provincial watchdog to probe the provincial government’s Greenbelt changes. Ontario’s integrity commissioner is also working on two related investigations. Photo: Fatima Syed / The Narwhal

Premier Doug Ford’s Office told The Narwhal it has accepted recommendations from Lysyk about how to improve its record-keeping processes, and is following up with the information watchdog about Lysyk’s findings. 

“We have been in contact with the information and privacy commissioner following the report and have established a working group to ensure the recommendations are implemented as soon as possible,” spokesperson Caitlin Clark said in an emailed statement. 

The office of Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, whose ministry is responsible for the Greenbelt, did not respond to a request for comment.

In the wake of Lysyk’s report, both Ford and Clark said they weren’t aware of the issues she documented, but took responsibility. They did not contest Lysyk’s findings about government record-keeping. 

Record-keeping scandals have been damaging for previous governments 

The statement from the information watchdog comes after the opposition Ontario NDP asked Kosseim on Aug. 18 to ensure the government “recovers and retains” all records related to the Greenbelt decision. 

In the request, Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles cited the auditor general’s Greenbelt report and reporting from Global News which suggested Premier Doug Ford uses his personal cell phone to conduct government business. According to the Global News story, government officials said  Ford’s personal number has nothing to do with government business and called any suggestion that Premier Ford used his personal phone for government work “speculative.”

While Ford has handed out his personal cell phone number at events, his government cell wasn’t used to make a single call over the course of a week in November 2022, according to call logs obtained by Global through freedom of information — the same month the government announced its plan to open the Greenbelt to development. (Global also found Ford didn’t use his government phone for three months at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021).

“The opposition believes that these facts constitute a troubling pattern of behaviour by this government, demonstrating a pervasive disregard for record-keeping and transparency, and perhaps even intentional attempts to avoid public scrutiny,” Stiles wrote in a letter to Kosseim.

It’s not clear if the alleged deleted emails documented by the auditor general would be possible to recover. The two developers who benefitted the most from the changes to the Greenbelt went to court to avoid having to answer questions and provide records to Lysyk for her audit. 

Minister Steve Clark's Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has been particularly slow to respond to freedom of information requests from The Narwhal's reporters.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark has been facing renewed backlash over the changes to the Greenbelt in the wake of Lysyk’s report. Photo: Carlos Osorio / The Narwhal

When the former Ontario Liberal government was under fire in 2013 over the deletion of emails related to a controversial decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants — a series of incidents known as the gas plants scandal — some records were later recovered from a secondary server. But others weren’t: David Livingston, the chief of staff to former premier Dalton McGuinty, was later found guilty of two charges for ordering the hard drives of two dozen government computers be permanently “wiped clean.”

There are no penalties for violating Ontario’s Archives and Recordkeeping Act, which bars government staffers from deleting emails, and the maximum fine for violating Ontario’s freedom of information law is $5,000. But the gas plants scandal also shows how damaging an investigation from the information and privacy commissioner has the potential to be for the Ford government. A 2013 investigation by then-information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian marked the start of a chain of events that led to Livingston’s conviction and, according to some, played a role in McGuinty’s eventual resignation. 

Cavoukian released her report on the scandal in June 2013, finding “indiscriminate deletion of emails” had taken place. In response, Progressive Conservative MPPs — including Vic Fedeli and Monte McNaughton, who are now ministers in Ford’s cabinet — called on the Ontario Provincial Police to investigate. The police launched their investigation two days later. 

What followed were years of headlines that dogged the Liberals: police raided government offices, ultimately charging Livingston and another McGuinty aide who was later acquitted. The trial wasn’t resolved until 2018, when the Progressive Conservatives hammered the Liberals over the issue in the provincial election that made Doug Ford the premier.

In British Columbia, a former assistant to then-transportation minister Todd Stone pled guilty in 2016 to making false statements under oath, stemming from an incident where he “triple-deleted” government emails. Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney also came under fire for the alleged deletion of records before he resigned in 2022. At the time, Kenney’s press secretary said provincial staff were expected to manage their records in accordance with Alberta’s policies.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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