Fallout continues from chief of staff resignation amid Greenbelt controversy

Click to play video: 'RCMP to probe Ontario Greenbelt deal'
RCMP to probe Ontario Greenbelt deal
WATCH: After a seven-month probe of the controversial Greenbelt deals, the OPP is handing over their files to the RCMP, to avoid the perception of conflict. Global News' Queen’s Park Bureau Chief Colin D’Mello reports – Aug 23, 2023

A central figure in the Ford government’s ongoing Greenbelt controversy is pushing back against assertions that he masterminded the land deals, after handing in his resignation this week.

In a resignation letter to the Premier’s Office, obtained by Global News, Ryan Amato — the former chief of staff to housing minister Steve Clark — said his role in the Greenbelt decision has been “unfairly depicted” and suggested he would be vindicated in any investigation.

“I am confident that I have acted appropriately, and that a fair and complete investigation would reach the same conclusion,” Amato wrote in his letter, which was provided to the Premier’s Office Tuesday afternoon.

“However, these public statements have made it impossible, as a practical matter, for me to continue in my present role,” Amato said. “I hereby resign effective immediately from my role as Chief of Staff to Minister Clark.”

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A bombshell report by Ontario’s auditor general put Amato at the centre of the Ford government’s controversial decision to allow development on 7,400 acres of former Greenbelt land.

The report said Amato had picked all but one parcel of land that was ultimately removed from the Greenbelt. It also explained how influential developers handed Amato packages with information on the lands they wanted to see removed.

“I do not wish to be a distraction from the Government of Ontario’s important work in getting More Homes Built Faster,” Amato’s letter said, before thanking Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Clark.

RCMP enter Greenbelt controversy

The day after the Ford government announced Amato’s resignation, investigators with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they were taking over a potential probe into the Greenbelt controversy.

The Ontario Provincial Police, which had been reviewing several complaints from the public about the Ford government since late 2022, said they had sent the file to the RCMP “to avoid any potential perceived conflict of interest.”

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The Mounties said the force was asked to “investigate irregularities in the disposition of the Greenbelt surrounding Toronto,” later clarifying it was beginning its “evaluation of the available information.”

The RCMP did not provide a timeline for its review of the OPP files.

Timing of resignation

Away from a potential criminal investigation, questions about the timing of Amato’s resignation continue to swirl.

Municipal officials were left scratching their heads Tuesday after the news of the resignation arrived during an annual meeting between towns, cities and the provincial government.

Just hours after housing minister Clark addressed the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference, the government announced Amato had resigned “effective immediately.”

“Clearly the timing was interesting since the news came out an hour after the ministers’ forum — essentially the conference is over,” one municipal source told Global News.

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Multiple sources who discussed the matter with municipal leaders at the conference told Global News the Greenbelt issue was widely whispered about during the four-day event, with some making observations of the behaviour of government MPPs.

“They were acting as if it was normal,” one source told Global News. “It’s not normal.”

Other individuals, sources said, told ministers the Greenbelt decision was eroding support for the Progressive Conservatives and that it was not “going away anytime soon.”

Observers pointed out the most awkward moment of the conference came when Regional Chief Glen Hare demanded the resignation of Clark and Amato, on Monday, moments before Premier Ford delivered a speech at the same podium.

PC MPPs were seated in the audience for Hare’s speech, which was met with applause from the audience.

Sources said the response to Clark’s speech on Tuesday was “muted” and theorized the timing of Amato’s resignation was designed to come after the minister had spoken.

Whether the timing had anything to do with the AMO conference itself is unclear.

“It didn’t seem like the Greenbelt issue was being raised in delegations really,” said the first source, who also attended the conference.

They said many in the municipal sector fear the Ford government is “so vengeful” that if cities speak out, they may find funding hard to come by.

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“This conference is delegations of cities trying to ask for money and other support,” the source said.

Calls for more resignations

Opposition parties at Queen’s Park are using the news to push for more resignations within the Ford government.

The Ontario NDP called on Clark to resign and for the Progressive Conservatives to recall the legislature to reverse the Greenbelt changes.

Ontario Liberal Leader John Fraser repeated his claim that Ford and Clark must have known about the parcels of land set to be swapped out of the Greenbelt long before they said they did.

“It is simply not believable that one political staffer was behind this $8.3 billion cash-for-your-land-scheme,” Fraser said.

“Mr. Amato’s resignation does not resolve this situation. Minister Clark must resign and Premier Ford must open the books to a full investigation.”

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Integrity commissioner undecided over Amato investigation

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner said his office has yet to address a request to investigate whether Amato violated ethics rules governing MPPs and political staffers at Queen’s Park.

Acting on a recommendation from the auditor general, the premier’s office asked the commissioner to review whether Amato “acted contrary” to the Public Service of Ontario Act and broke conflict of interest rules over the Greenbelt land swaps.

The commissioner said he is “focusing” on completing his months-long investigation into whether Clark violated ethics rules over the Greenbelt decisions before addressing the request from the Premier’s office.

Provincial laws governing the commissioner’s office allow for investigations into current or former public servants, allowing for a potential investigation into Amato’s actions despite his resignation.

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