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Housing minister broke law in Greenbelt land swap: integrity commissioner

Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake finds Steve Clark broke the ethics law by sticking his 'head in the sand' on the Greenbelt initiative
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark speaks to the media at Queen's Park in Toronto following the release of the auditor general's Greenbelt report on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023.

Housing Minister Steve Clark broke Ontario's ethics law for MPPs by failing to oversee the process his top staffer led to remove lands from the Greenbelt for development, the province's integrity commissioner has found.

In the 165-page-long report released Wednesday, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake detailed why he found Clark violated laws for MPPs concerning conflicts of interest and the distribution of insider information.

Wake's determination was based largely on the actions of Ryan Amato, Clark's now-former chief of staff. The integrity commissioner's report — like Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk's before it — found that Amato had a tight control on the land-selection process, during which time he was frequently in contact with developers who later benefited as major holders of the 7,400 acres of land that was removed from the Greenbelt last year.

"(Clark) chose to absent himself from directing this file or receiving information on it from Sept. 15 when Mr. Amato told him 'leave it with me' until he was briefed on Oct. 26 before it went to cabinet," the integrity commissioner wrote.

From September to November, "Mr. Amato was the driving force behind a flawed process which provided an advantage to those who approached him,” Wake added.

However, Clark's own exclusion from the land-selection process, which Wake said he believed to be truthful, did not benefit him in the commissioner's eyes. In fact, Clark's turning a blind eye was an "aggravating element" in the integrity commissioner's determination that the minister broke conflict of interest and insider information laws. 

"Mr. Amato’s communications to developers must be attributed to Mr. Clark because I find he failed to oversee an important initiative in his ministry which led to some developers being alerted to a potential change in the government’s position on the Greenbelt with the result that their private interests were furthered improperly," Wake wrote in his report.

Ultimately, Clark took the proposed Greenbelt changes to cabinet without questioning Amato on how the Greenbelt properties were selected for removal, Wake found.

The minister's failure to manage Amato “led to some developers being alerted to a potential change in the government’s position on the Greenbelt with the result that their private interests were furthered improperly," the report says.

“It may seem incredible that Minister Clark would have chosen to stick his head in the sand on such an important initiative being undertaken by his ministry but I believe that was exactly what he did,” Wake wrote. 

The integrity commissioner offered a potential explanation for Clark’s ignorance. 

Clark wasn’t keen on the project because it meant he’d be going against past decisions “and so it was a tough decision,” Wake wrote. 

Wake’s report is not primarily focused on the premier and it does not contradict the premier’s claim that he was not involved in the selection of the specific sites removed from the protected area. 

However, the report does include Amato’s recollection of a meeting with the premier and his principal secretary on Sept. 15 where he “sought clarification directly from Premier Ford with respect to the Greenbelt item in (Minister Clark’s) mandate letter.”

He said he didn’t recall what had been said but came away with “a clear understanding that something needed to be done.”

The report includes excerpts of a text message he sent afterwards to Kirstin Jensen, who’d been Clark’s interim chief of staff, telling her that the premier and his principal secretary were “very serious” about “doing Greenbelt swaps.”

However, Wake reports the premier and his principal secretary said they have no recollection of the meeting. 

The report also describes the meeting on Nov. 2, 2022 when the premier was first informed about the specific sites chosen. Two staffers told Wake it was clear the premier didn’t have prior knowledge of them because he appeared very interested in learning what they were.

The premier has also said he hadn’t discussed the removal of any of the properties from the Greenbelt with developers. 

Silvio De Gasperis, the owner of the Cherrywood property on the Duffins’ Rouge Agricultural Preserve, told Wake he discussed removing it from the Greenbelt with the premier shortly after the 2018 election, and recalled the premier told him he could not do it. 

The premier denied having that conversation. 

Another section of the report concerns a text message Amato sent saying that the premier “has to stop calling this guy,” referring to Sergio Manchia, a part owner of the Barton Street property in Hamilton. 

Neither the premier nor Manchia, a PC donor who’s hosted fundraisers for the party, could recall phone conversations taking place. 

Wake also identified times when civil servants’ notes indicated Amato refer to “P” — typically shorthand for the premier — in discussions about the Greenbelt, and that some properties had been brought forward by him. However, the commissioner concluded “his motive for dropping the name of the premier or the office was probably done to lend authority to his direction to the ministry public servants and not based in reality.”

Having completed his inquiry on Clark, the integrity commissioner is now expected to turn his attention to two other possible investigations related to the Greenbelt land swap.

One is focused on the premier and the presence of developers and lobbyists at his daughter’s wedding festivities a year ago. Wake effectively paused this work last March, writing in a report that he was ”placing it in abeyance” until he completed his inquiry on Clark.

In a statement after the report was released, the premier's office expressed confidence in Clark.

“When it comes to the Greenbelt land-swap, the government’s singular goal has been to build more homes people can afford," it said.

"We’ve acknowledged areas where we need to improve; the Integrity Commissioner reiterated that today, and we’ll continue to work to strengthen the process moving forward."

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said it's a problem that the Members' Integrity Act doesn't allow the commissioner to levy any real punishment. 

She and Green Leader Mike Schreiner called on Clark to resign and for the government to reverse the land swaps.

“There must be a full, independent public inquiry into the corrupt process that led to the $8.3 billion Greenbelt scandal,” Schreiner added.

Wake's report confirms the government's "corruption" around the Greenbelt swaps, which merit investigation by the RCMP, Stiles said. The police force is currently deciding whether or not to investigate.

“Once you start talking about Mr. X — this is not the Ontario Ontarians want to live in," she said, referring to Wake’s pseudonym for a development consultant in the report. "We don’t want a province controlled by Mr. X.”

This is the "first taste" of what may be uncovered, Stiles said, noting the commissioner’s investigation into Ford's relationships with developers is still likely forthcoming.

"What we've seen over the last few weeks is one of the greatest breaches of trust in the history of … the Ontario government," she said.


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