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Staffers who left Ford government over Greenbelt scandal got exit packages: sources

Ryan Amato and Jae Truesdell quit in the heat of the scandal but made as much as their colleagues who worked all year
Ontario’s former minister of housing Steve Clark and Premier Doug Ford wait to speak at a press conference in Mississauga, Ont. on Aug. 11, 2023.

This story is a collaboration between The Trillium and The Narwhal.

The political staffer at the centre of the Greenbelt scandal was paid the equivalent of a full year’s work in 2023 even though he quit in August, Ontario’s Sunshine List shows.

Ryan Amato, who served as chief of staff to the minister of municipal affairs and housing, got an exit package, three government sources told The Trillium and The Narwhal.

Amato was paid $156,769 in 2023, according to the public sector salary disclosure list released Thursday, despite resigning 64 per cent of the way into the year. The average earned by cabinet ministers’ chiefs of staff who worked for the full calendar year was $157,218.

Another government staffer who resigned as a result of the Greenbelt scandal was also paid about a year’s salary in 2023, making $144,504. Jae Truesdell resigned just over 70 per cent of the way into the year. 

Truesdell, Premier Doug Ford’s former director of housing policy, also received an exit package upon his resignation, one government source told The Trillium and The Narwhal. Other premier’s office policy directors made $112,773 on average for a full year’s work.

It’s normal for government employees to receive severance if they’re fired. But Amato and Truesdell got payouts from the government despite quitting, making their cases unusual, according to three sources who've worked, or work, in ministers' offices, including one who shared a copy of their own contract. The provincial government also confirmed it has records that relate to severance or exit packages for both men.

Before he resigned, Amato was the chief of staff to then-housing minister Steve Clark. Investigations by the province’s auditor general and integrity commissioner concluded Amato largely steered the process of picking land for removal from the Greenbelt in 2022, granting requests from developers. 

In a resignation letter obtained by multiple news outlets, Amato wrote that his role had been “unfairly depicted,” that he hadn’t acted inappropriately and “a fair and complete investigation would reach the same conclusion.” (The Trillium and The Narwhal have not independently verified the letter.)

Truesdell worked on crafting instructions to Clark that led Amato to explore opening up the Greenbelt for housing development. In early 2020, while working in the private sector, Truesdell went on a trip to the same Las Vegas hotel where a would-be Greenbelt developer was vacationing at the same time.

Ford walked back the Greenbelt changes in September 2023 amid massive public backlash after the two watchdog reports concluded his government gave preferential treatment to a small group of developers, many with longstanding ties to Ford and the Progressive Conservative party. Had the plan gone forward, the carveouts would have meant the loss of protections for 3,000 hectares, or 7,400 acres, of farmland, wetlands, endangered species habitat and green space in the Greater Toronto Area. Developers owning the properties removed for development were set to make over $8 billion from the move, Ontario's auditor general found. 

The Trillium and The Narwhal filed two separate freedom-of-information requests seeking the “details of any severance and/or exit package” given to Amato and Truesdell. In response, the Cabinet Office — which manages freedom-of-information requests for the premier’s office — said it had records, which would appear to confirm the payouts. The Cabinet Office declined to release them, however, citing a section of Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that allows it to shield employment-related records from being released.

Similar information, however, has been previously disclosed through the freedom-of-information system. In August 2019, the Globe and Mail reported former premier Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet approved more than $200,000 apiece in severance packages for two senior premier’s office staffers, citing records released in response to a freedom-of-information request. The staffers’ jobs disappeared after the Liberals lost the 2018 election and, the Globe reported, their severance was well above the 16 weeks pay dictated by law following a change in government. 

Neither Amato nor Truesdell responded to The Trillium’s and The Narwhal’s questions about whether they received an exit package when they left the government before publication of this story. 

Ford’s office also didn’t respond to questions about the payouts — including their amounts — before publication.

Ontario law can entitle staffers to payouts — but usually not when they quit

Ontario law entitles political staffers to compensation in certain scenarios, but not when they resign. 

A small group of ministers known as the Management Board of Cabinet do have broad authority under Ontario law, however, to approve various kinds of payments for political staffers.

Amato resigned on Aug. 22, 2023, 12 days after he was spotlighted in Ontario’s auditor general’s report on the Greenbelt changes.

Over several weeks in the fall of 2022, Amato oversaw a small team of public servants in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing tasked with identifying land to remove from the Greenbelt. Amato brought the group 14 of the 15 land sites that were stripped of environmental protections. In most cases, either developers owning the land, or their representatives, had directly asked Amato or a colleague to remove the land from the Greenbelt, according to reports from the province’s auditor general and integrity commissioner.

Amato burst into public view after the auditor general’s report outlining his role in the scandal came out on Aug. 9, 2023. Under pressure to fire Amato in the ensuing backlash, the premier personally fought to keep him in the government, the Toronto Star reported on Aug. 17.

By that time, Amato had worked in conservative politics for the better part of a decade, mostly in behind-the-scenes roles before becoming former housing minister Steve Clark’s chief-of-staff after the June 2022 election. Amato’s fiancée is also a longtime staffer in the Progressive Conservative government, having served as the premier’s executive assistant in its early days.

In the days leading up to Amato’s resignation, emails he sent — which were obtained from a different freedom-of-information request — suggest he was going about business as usual. Ford’s office announced his resignation late on Aug. 22, 2023.

Soon after, Ontario’s integrity commissioner released the results of his Greenbelt probe — including findings about Truesdell’s Vegas trip. The trip had been first reported by The Trillium earlier in the summer, but the integrity commissioner’s report included interviews with Truesdell and the others involved: Flato Developments president Shakir Rehmatullah and two other Ford government insiders. 

The Vegas-goers’ testimonies to the commissioner contradicted aspects of The Trillium’s reporting, leading it, and then CTV News, to publish additional details calling into question what they had said while under oath.

Ford said Truesdell quit at the same news conference on Sept. 21, 2023 where he promised to undo the removal of land from the Greenbelt. “Jae gave his resignation to my chief of staff,” Ford said.

By Sept. 23, Truesdell and the two others connected to the Ford government who went on the Las Vegas trip had all offered additional information to the integrity commissioner’s office to correct parts of their previous testimonies. 

The RCMP announced it was investigating the Greenbelt changes on Oct. 10. The national police service confirmed that it’s special domestic corruption and political investigations group has been working on the case ever since.

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