Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca‘s former riding association racked up thousands of dollars in hospitality charges during his six years in government, money that was spent on expensive dinners at upscale restaurants and ritzy steakhouses.
Global News reviewed years of riding association annual filings housed at Elections Ontario’s headquarters in Scarborough and discovered more than $50,000 in hospitality expenses charged to Del Duca’s Vaughan-Woodbridge riding between 2013 and 2018, when Del Duca served as Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Finance, Minister of Transportation and Minister of Economic Development and Growth.
During that period, when Del Duca earned between $130,000 to $165,000 per year as an MPP and cabinet minister, the constituency filed between $5,000 and $11,000 each year in sit-down dinner expenses that the party is defending as “legitimate.”
The issue of politicians charging their riding associations for expenses was raised during the election campaign after Global News reported eight Progressive Conservative MPPs were given constituency allowances while also receiving a taxpayer-funded salary, which Del Duca criticized as “troubling.”
“I think it is troubling for those individuals who are receiving an MPP is compensation or salary. And then, frankly, from this particular party, telling the people of Ontario that they had to freeze the minimum wage four years ago,” Del Duca said on May 11.
Del Duca riding association expenses
From the moment Del Duca began his first full year in office, his Vaughan-Woodbridge riding association began racking up dinner expenses and the charges continued until 2018 — Del Duca’s final year in office.
The reasons for the expenses, according to the filings, were to host meetings but the documents do not offer any clarity on who participated in those meetings, the subject matter or why the riding association was paying for meals at restaurants outside of the Vaughan-Woodbridge constituency.
An Ontario Liberal party spokesperson told Global News that “all the expenses were legitimate,” were used for donor and volunteer appreciation, and were approved by the riding association before being submitted to Elections Ontario.
The expenses, however, showcase a taste for the finer things in life.
In 2018, the riding association was billed $10,581.62 for meals at four steak houses including:
The Keg Steakhouse: $8,464.26
Hy’s Steakhouse on Bay St.: $1,196.77
Jacob’s & Co. Steakhouse: $566.03
Bob’s Steak & Chop: $354.56
That same year — the Liberals’ final year in government — Del Duca’s constituency association also shelled out more than $1,200 for meals at two upscale Italian restaurants in Woodbridge and Kleinburg.
While 2018 was the most expensive year for “meetings,” it capped off a years-long pattern of spending at some of the highest-end restaurants in Toronto — including in the ritzy Yorkville area — Vaughan, Windsor and Ottawa.
Yearly top-tier restaurant expenses for the Vaughan-Woodbridge riding:
Those expenses are over and above what could be considered typical food-related costs — such as pizza, coffee and grocery items — to feed staff, volunteers and constituents at events. For example, in 2013, the riding association also purchased $661 worth of food from Pizza Nova and $120 from The Big Canoli — which Global News has excluded from the overall dinner-related expenses.
While most of the expensive dinners took place at steakhouses, three in particular appeared to rank as the most popular among the riding association.
Between 2013 and 2018, the association approved:
$2,600: Morton’s Steakhouse
$2,900: Hy’s Steakhouse in multiple cities
$14,437: The Keg
Del Duca’s campaign team told Global News the top-tier expenses coincided with party events, such as annual general meetings and provincial councils, and high-end restaurants were picked because of the availability of space.
How does it compare?
Global News reviewed the constituency expenses of the other party leaders participating in the 2022 election to compare the costs of Del Duca’s Vaughan-Woodbridge riding.
While NDP Leader Andrea Horwath‘s Hamilton Centre and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner‘s Guelph riding associations did not list any similar dinners at expensive restaurants during their time in office, PC leader Doug Ford’s Etobicoke North constituency association approved thousands of dollars in meals and meetings in 2020.
Ford’s riding approved roughly $5,000 in expenditures during the first year of the pandemic with the bulk of the “meals with members” taking place at fast-food or local restaurants including McDonald’s, Pizza Pizza, Subway and Tim Hortons. None of the meetings, according to the yearly filings with Elections Ontario, was held at any high-priced restaurants.
“Like all riding associations across the province, the Etobicoke North EDA hosts volunteer appreciation events, community events and holiday celebrations. All expenses are approved by the local riding association board, audited by a licenced auditor, and reviewed and approved by Elections Ontario,” said Ivana Yelich, a spokesperson for the PC campaign.
Other Progressive Conservative MPPs, however, found themselves in hot water for receiving an ‘MPP allowance’ that allowed some to pay for childcare costs even as they received a $125,000 a year salary from Queen’s Park to serve as a member of provincial parliament.
Del Duca’s campaign team said that unlike the PCs, “no time has Steven topped up his MPP salary through the riding association.”
What will change?
The leaders of all three major parties have promised to review the Election Finances Act and possibly introduce new rules to crack down on how money given to ridings associations — either through direct donations from supporters or from Ontario’s per-vote subsidy — can be spent.
Del Duca, who criticized the Progressive Conservatives over their spending habits, promised a “citizens assembly” on election reform would study the subject if his party formed government on June 2.
“I want all parties involved, all political parties, Elections Ontario, academics, advocates involved in that process,” Del Duca said on May 11. “I think it should have the opportunity to examine everything, including election finance laws.”
The NDP promised to “ban” the practice of MPPs “using riding associations as personal ATMs” if they form government this spring.
Ford — who used the notwithstanding clause to overrule the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to pass legislation in 2021 that loosened election financing rules — has promised to form an all-party committee after the election to review the election financing laws and “tighten them up.”