Ontario integrity commissioner, auditor general launch probes into Greenbelt decision

Click to play video: 'Ford government faces 2 probes into Greenbelt decision'
Ford government faces 2 probes into Greenbelt decision
WATCH ABOVE: Both Ontario's auditor general and integrity commissioner have signalled the beginning of investigations into the Ford government's decision to open portions of the Greenbelt for development. Colin D'Mello has more details – Jan 18, 2023

Ontario’s integrity commission and auditor general will launch probes into the Ford government’s decision to open portions of the Greenbelt for development, acting on requests from the Ontario NDP and other opposition parties.

The integrity commissioner accepted a request on Wednesday from incoming Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles, to look into whether housing minister Steve Clark broke conflict of interest and insider information rules.

The province’s auditor general also released a letter Wednesday, accepting a call from the leaders of the Ontario Greens, Liberals and NDP for a “value-for-money audit of the financial and environmental implications relating to the government’s recent decisions affecting the Greenbelt.”

At the same time, Premier Doug Ford’s office hailed a new report from integrity commissioner J. David Wake that determined there is “insufficient evidence” to investigate the premier himself on questions of whether developers were given a heads up before portions of the Greenbelt were removed in December.

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In the wake of the controversial decision to remove 7,400 acres of land from the Greenbelt and convert them into housing developments, the government’s political critics submitted complaints to the integrity commissioner requesting an official probe into whether the Member’s Integrity Act was broken and whether developers who owned the land were given advance notice of the decision.

The bulk of the questions came from a Toronto Star/Narwhal investigation which found one developer bought 700 acres of Greenbelt land in September, weeks before the government announced its plan to open that property for development.

In his report to the Ontario legislature, Wake questioned the conflict of interest concerns raised by Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner and determined he didn’t have enough evidence to launch a full-scale probe.

“It is entirely possible that someone may have alerted one or more of the owners of the affected lands about the changes to the Greenbelt plan and the decision as to which lands would be selected,” Wake’s report stated. “I note that both the premier and the minister denied having done so.”

Wake added that he wasn’t presented evidence that “either the premier or the minister advanced their private interest” by approving the changes made to the Greenbelt.

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Cody Welton, a deputy chief of staff to Premier Ford, slammed the complaint from the Green Party as “another baseless opposition complaint against the premier.”

While Wake declined one request for an investigation, he greenlit another to probe Minister Steve Clark’s actions surrounding the Greenbelt.

Marit Stile filed a complaint with the commissioner about whether Clark violated conflict of interest and insider information rules “with respect to the decision to allow development on lands in the Greenbelt and Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve.”

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“Ms. Stiles submitted an extensive affidavit which included media articles but also direct evidence,” Wake noted. “After assessing this information, I have decided to conduct an inquiry.”

In a letter published Wednesday and sent to three opposition party leaders, Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario’s auditor general, said she would be conducting an audit around the Greenbelt decision.

On Jan. 11, the Liberal, Green and NDP leaders wrote to Lysyk requesting a value-for-money and environmental audit of the Ford government’s decision.

“A letter requesting us to conduct work in a specific area jointly signed by the leaders of all Opposition parties of the Ontario Legislative Assembly is a request of high significance,” she wrote.

Lysyk said the government had assured her they would offer “full cooperation” during the audit, adding that while the “exact scope of the audit has not as yet been finalized,” the specific requests laid out by opposition leaders would be taken into consideration.

In a statement, Clark said he welcomed the integrity commissioner’s decision to dismiss the complaint from the Ontario Greens and “looks forward to being cleared of any wrongdoing” at the end of the investigation that has been launched.

Click to play video: 'Ford government critics welcome OPP greenbelt probe'
Ford government critics welcome OPP greenbelt probe

Ontario Liberal interim leader John Fraser said the investigations are “good news” for people in Ontario.

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“It is good news for Ontarians to have the Integrity Commissioner and the Auditor General launch investigations into the government’s move to carve up the Greenbelt,” Fraser said.

“The more people looking into this, the better. It just doesn’t smell right, and it has a stench of insider trading.”

The Ontario NDP and Greens also both welcomed the move.

Stiles said she was “relieved to see that this matter is being treated with the seriousness that it deserves,” while Schreiner said that “people need to know why the premier broke his repeated promises not to touch the Greenbelt, not to open it up for development.”

The Greenbelt deals, which were finalized in December, also led to multiple complaints to the OPP which has launched a preliminary probe.

An OPP spokesperson told Global News “the review is ongoing.”

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