Ontario government officials are now acknowledging that Premier Doug Ford uses his personal cell phone for government business, but are refusing to divulge his phone logs, citing the need to maintain privacy of callers and the government’s inability to assess the nature of the phone calls.
Global News has been engaged in a months-long transparency battle with the Ontario government over the premier’s use of his personal cell phone for taxpayer-related business and the public’s right to access those records.
The government initially denied access to the records, claiming the premier’s personal cell phone number falls outside the scope of freedom of information laws, leading to an appeal by Global News to the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC).
On Sept. 8, in a follow-up submission to the IPC, government lawyers representing Cabinet Office acknowledged that Ford uses his private cell phone for a range of matters from personal to political.
“(Cabinet Office) acknowledges that the premier’s personal cell phone number has been made publicly available on occasion and that he uses his personal cell phone,” the submission states.
An overwhelming amount of calls
In its submission to the IPC, the province acknowledged that since the premier is “always on-duty,” the calls he receives on his personal device can consist of a mix of family and government-related matters.
“The practical reality is the premier performs many roles and is never fully off-duty,” the government’s submission reads. “Accordingly, the premier makes and receives calls in his different roles as necessary at all times of the day.”
Government lawyers confirmed that in addition to family and friends, Ford also makes and receives phone calls related to his position as the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus, a minister, head of the Executive Council and Cabinet and Premier of Ontario — much of which would constitute government business.
But while the government said the premier receives “an overwhelming amount of calls on his personal phone,” they still argue that the phone logs should be shielded from public view because they might relate to constituency matters.
The government argues that, in some cases, callers might be trying to bring an issue to the “attention of the premier in his capacity as a member of the Legislative Assembly” and those calls are not subject to disclosure laws.
Releasing those call records, the government argues, would “ignore the fundamental privacy rights of both the premier in his personal capacity and those he may communicate with.”
What’s clear from the government’s submission, however, is that Premier Ford has not handed over his personal cell phone records for examination — leaving even the province’s lawyers with little insight into exactly who the premier may have communicated with during that one-week period.
“The cell phone call logs are not in the ministry’s custody or control,” the Attorney General’s office said in the submission.
Even if the records were in the government’s possession, lawyers argued, it would be “impossible to determine” which phone calls are related to constituency or government matters and which calls were personal in nature.
“To determine what the call was about and whether any exemptions applied, one would have to call each number on the cell phone log, identifying the individual who was on the call at a specific date and time, and ask that individual if they can recall what that specific call was about,” the submission to the IPC read.
Ultimately, the government said any attempt to gain insight into who Premier Doug Ford speaks to on his personal cell phone amounts to “fishing expedition that is highly personally invasive.”
Critics question government's claims
In the wake of the Greenbelt scandal and the premier’s admission that his government made a mistake in opening the protected land for development, NDP Leader Marit Stiles began pushing the government for transparency on the decision-making process.
“Is the premier using his personal phone to conduct government business to avoid freedom-of-information requests?” Stiles asked the premier in the Ontario Legislature.
The response, from government house leader Paul Calandra, indicated that even cabinet ministers were aware that the government business was being conducted on the premier’s cell phone.
“He gets lots of calls from a lot of people,” Calandra said and added that even caucus members feel compelled to pick up the premier’s phone calls to deal with urgent government-related decisions.
“Many of us in caucus have been on the opposite end of this—that you have to call somebody back, because he has been at Walmart doing some shopping, and he spoke with somebody, and they want some action from a minister or from a caucus colleague,” Calandra said last week at Queen’s Park.
In July, Ford outlined exactly what happens when his phone rings, as he handed out his number to a business crowd.
Ford said his Chief of Staff Patrick Sackville helps manage the messages and requests he receives on his personal phone.
“We’re up to midnight going back and forth,” Ford said.
“If your family needs help, you need help, your business needs help, send it over to me,” he continued. “Give me a few hours or the next morning, but I get back to every single person.”
Even government lawyers have suggested the premier could be using his phone for a central government-related activity — even as they argue that his calls logs shouldn’t be released.
The calls, the lawyers told the IPC, could deal with sensitive information related to current or future cabinet decisions or could help in “determining and deliberating on how to establish the agenda of Cabinet.”
Stiles said the examples given by government officials about how the premier uses his phone is evidence of the problem.
“Just to be clear: The premier is using his personal phone to conduct government business—on the record,” Stiles told the legislature.
Global News continues its appeal with the Information and Privacy Commissioner.