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Greenbelt message on personal email server raises new calls for investigations

Click to play video: 'Premier Ford to waive cabinet confidentiality in RCMP’s Greenbelt probe'
Premier Ford to waive cabinet confidentiality in RCMP’s Greenbelt probe
RELATED: Ontario Premier Doug Ford confirmed the RCMP will have access to all government documents in their Greenbelt investigation. Global’s Queen’s Park bureau chief Colin D’Mello reports – Nov 24, 2023

The Ford government is facing new Greenbelt questions after an internal email — obtained by the Ontario NDP — suggests that staff in the premier’s office were intimately aware of the plans to open land for housing development.

The revelation could become a problematic issue for Premier Doug Ford and his current chief of staff, who claimed, under oath, that he was not directly involved in the selection of sites to be carved out of the Greenbelt or the criteria.

Ford and his cabinet signed off on the removal of 7,400 acres of land in December 2022, igniting controversy over how those lands were selected.

Subsequent investigations by Ontario’s auditor general and integrity commissioner revealed that developers were given “preferential treatment” and seemed to have advanced knowledge of which properties were going to be removed from the Greenbelt.

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The ensuing scandal led to the resignation of Ryan Amato, who served as the chief of staff to the minister of housing and oversaw the process within the ministry, and Steve Clark, Ford’s housing minister who stepped down after the integrity commissioner deemed that he had contravened the Members’ Integrity Act.

Exchange on private email

Nearly two weeks before the Ford government publicly revealed the plan to carve out land from the Greenbelt, Amato sent an email to Patrick Sackville, who was working as the principal secretary to Ford at the time, with the subject line “special project – GB.”

Amato’s email, exchanged with Sackville on Oct. 17, 2022, on personal email accounts, contained a “list of criteria for removals,” including what type of location should be considered, what type of infrastructure should exist on the land and what the potential offset plan should look like.

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The email suggested the lands that would be targeted would live on the “edge of the existing greenbelt” and “adjacent to an existing urban area” and that the government should add twice the number of acres that were removed from the Greenbelt.

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“The 2:1 model is consistent on government messaging with every acer (sic) coming out 2 were added,” Amato said in the email.

Amato ended the email with a suggestion that Ford’s office would have a direct impact on the scale of the proposal.

“Options to go larger depending on Executive Interest,” Amato said.

The email, records show, was sent at 3:10 p.m.

Later that evening Amato emailed Sackville and senior staff in the premier’s office, this time on government email, asking for time to “review a project he has been working on.”

The integrity commissioner’s report said that “Mr. Sackville responded to all the same evening, stating this is timely and critical and suggested a date a few days later.”

Email contradicts Sackville's testimony

The contents of the email seem to directly contradict what Sackville told the integrity commissioner during his months-long investigation into the situation in 2023.

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“Mr. Sackville said he did not discuss specific properties to be removed or removal criteria with Mr. Amato until the briefing that occurred on October 27, 2022,” the commissioner’s report last August said.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles asked the integrity commissioner for a review of the consistency of the information.

“I am deeply concerned by the apparent contradiction between the information in this October 17, 2022 email and Mr. Sackville’s statements under oath, as described in your report, concerning his knowledge of and involvement with the Greenbelt project prior to October 27, 2022,” Stiles said in a letter to commissioner J. David Wake.

Wake said in his response that he will conduct another review.

“I will need some time to review the evidence, not only of Mr. Sackville, but other witnesses to determine whether there was an inconsistency in the evidence,” Wake told the NDP.

A spokesperson for the premier’s office suggested there is nothing new to glean from the email.

“There is no net-new information from what has been previously disclosed and mirrors what was being briefed on at that time. Regardless, we proactively provided this document to all relevant parties, including the Integrity Commissioner, the Auditor General and anyone who made a relevant freedom of information requests,” a spokesperson said.

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Sackville recently discovered email

While the NDP made its initial request for government documents related to the Greenbelt in November 2022, the email was only disclosed by Sackville on Dec. 22, 2023.

Sackville claimed that he recently discovered the email in his private inbox “upon deeper review.”

Cabinet Office, which handles freedom of information requests, said the message was unearthed after Sackville “conducted additional searches within his personal email account.”

Ontario’s auditor general has stressed that the use of personal email accounts to conduct government business is “inappropriate.”

“Under the OPS Acceptable Use I&IT Guidelines: ‘only the work email account (e.g., @Ontario.ca) should be used for government work,’” the auditor noted in a report about the Greenbelt in 2022.

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