Lobbyists hired to land a controversial sole-source deal with the Toronto Transit Commission followed up their win by sending talking points to new transit commissioners to help them respond to mounting criticism of the agreement.
The notes prepared by Sussex Strategy Group about the deal with its client, Gateway Newstands, were sent to some of the TTC’s recently appointed citizen commissioners, TTC chair Karen Stintz said.
Ms. Stintz said she has seen the crib notes defending the deal, but was not sent them directly and did not know they were being prepared.
“I said to commissioners if they have concerns, give me a call,” Ms. Stintz said on Wednesday. “It is not something I asked them to do.”
Sussex was founded in 1998, according to its website, by company president Paul Pellegrini, a former political aide at the federal and provincial levels, and its lobbyists are familiar sights at city hall.
Sussex is working with MGM Resorts International, which is vying to build a Toronto waterfront casino, and lobbied for the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Union in its budget standoff with the mayor last week that resulted in an extra $3.1-million to provide 63 firefighters and maintain five fire trucks and one fire station.
Ms. Stintz said she advised the new commissioners that, like councillors, it is up to them to decide whether they wish to deal with lobbyists. “I told them you have no obligation to meet with them, or to listen to what they have to say,” she said.
Ms. Stintz defended the $50-million, 10-year deal to run subway newsstands, bakeries and cafés in media interviews on Tuesday. She said her own staff prepared notes for her remarks.
Councillor Josh Colle, one of two TTC commissioners to vote against the deal, said he is not comfortable with lobbyists distributing remarks to defend decisions. If Gateway took exception to comments about the deal, it should have made that public in a letter to the commission, Mr. Colle said.
“This just doesn’t sit right with me,” he said.
Jamie Besner, a partner at Sussex, said the group did send out “a series of facts relating to the deal.”
“They weren’t talking points. There was a fact sheet, yeah, absolutely,” he said on Wednesday.
When asked if that was improper, he said no, calling it a “very normal activity.”
“We always do that. The fact of the matter is that’s what we’re paid for. We’re paid to communicate with decision-makers and provide them with facts and information on behalf of our clients,” he said.
Mr. Besner said Sussex felt the need to reach out after Monday’s TTC meeting to counter misinformation in the public realm.
“I think this has been improperly characterized as a ‘sole-source deal,’ ” he said. “The fact of the matter is this is a lease extension and a harmonization of three existing leases that Gateway had with the system, the TTC. Those three leases had various expiry dates on them. They all had time left on them. It wasn’t a situation where the TTC could have even issued a [request for proposals] for this now.”
In awarding the deal, the commission rejected staff advice to issue a request for proposals for operating the outlets. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a former TTC commissioner, has said the TTC should have asked for bids given the size and length of the deal. Councillor Doug Ford has said the deal “shows the gravy train’s full steam ahead with the chair of the TTC.”
Toronto’s lobbyist registry says Mr. Besner was one of three Sussex employees to lobby on Gateway’s behalf.