As Premier Doug Ford weathers the Greenbelt scandal and RCMP investigation, his government has turned to a well-known political insider to identify potential conflicts of interest that could land the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in hot water.
Global News has confirmed that Deb Hutton, who served as a one-time chief of staff to former premier Mike Harris, has been tasked with looking for landmines while helping political staff in the Ford government brush up on conflict of interest rules.
In an interview with Global News, Hutton said she had spoken with the chiefs of staff across the Ontario government about “maintaining strict integrity going forward” in the wake of the Greenbelt scandal that revealed close ties between the government and the developer community.
“I went in to speak to the chiefs of staff last week just to sort of get my experience from the past and share my thoughts,” Hutton said. “And, yes, it was it was about sort of preventing and avoiding conflicts of interest.”
The premier’s office said Hutton had volunteered to use her “extensive political experience” to help the government “improve processes and conduct of political staff” as the province looks to implement the recommendations from Ontario’s auditor general.
“Last week, she met with all chiefs of staff to share her experience in government and offer her perspective on preventing conflicts of interest,” said Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford.
“She did that last week and volunteered to continue those discussions with chiefs of staff as we work to set up even tighter rules around potential conflicts of interest.”
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Multiple conservative sources, however, told Global News that Hutton was essentially “brought in to run a second issues management shop” and has asked staff, government-wide, to look through their calendars to identify any problematic meetings.
“Everyone needs to write everything that they think is a conflict, from tickets, dinners or trips,” one source told Global News.
A separate source also said staff are being asked to look through their calendars and flag any potential conflicts of interest, like events they attended.
A third source said Hutton was well-positioned to work as a fixer on the Greenbelt scandal and help put staff on the right track.
Hutton, the source said, was “one of a handful of conservative operatives who, when they walk into a room, staff breathe a sigh of relief,” but added she is “ruthless and effective.”
While some sources have raised concerns that the government is asking political staff to “incriminate themselves,” the premier’s office suggested the process is part of the government’s response to the explosive reports from the auditor general and integrity commissioner.
“Integrity Commissioner David Wake will also present to and work with chiefs of staff to ensure they are meeting the highest standards expected of all public servants,” a Ford government spokesperson said.
Hutton herself is downplaying her role, telling Global News she has offered to share her “guidance and advice” on conflict of interest.
“I went in to talk to them about what’s important in terms of maintaining strict integrity going forward, making sure that when they look back, that everything is as it should be in terms of public trust,” Hutton said.
Hutton said she has also taken a “number of phone calls” from political staff asking whether certain meetings “pass the smell test.”
“I said, ‘Here’s my number,'” Hutton said. “You know, if you’ve got questions about this, let’s chat and I’ll give you my perspective on it to make sure that the process, particularly going forward, is one that the premier and the premier’s team can feel comfortable (with).”
Since Hutton doesn’t have a formal role it’s unclear how long her volunteer duties are expected to last.