Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s top staffers were aware that Rod Phillips would be away from Toronto and “not available in person,” more than a week before the former finance minister embarked on a trip to the luxury island of St. Barts during the coronavirus pandemic, documents show.
E-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail show that, on two occasions, Mr. Phillips’s former chief of staff informed the Premier’s office that his boss would be away for weeks at a time, and in the case of the December holidays suggested Mr. Phillips would tell the Premier directly. The e-mails were provided to The Globe by the Ontario Liberals, and come from a Freedom of Information request.
The timeline of the e-mails lines up with two vacations that Mr. Phillips took last year, despite months of provincial and federal travel advisories. Mr. Phillips travelled to Switzerland in August and, even as COVID-19 cases were rising, to the Caribbean island of St. Barts last December, two weeks before Mr. Ford and his cabinet announced a provincewide shutdown on Boxing Day.
After his St. Barts trip was revealed, Mr. Phillips returned to Canada and resigned from cabinet on Jan. 1. He remains a Progressive Conservative MPP for the Toronto-area riding of Ajax.
Mr. Phillips did not address questions about whether he informed the Premier that he would be away, as an e-mail suggests. In a statement, Mr. Phillips said the decision to travel to St. Barts was his own. “It was a serious error in judgment. The blame is mine alone and I have taken responsibility. Over the past several months I’ve been continuing my work serving the people of Ajax,” he said.
Mr. Ford has said he knew that Mr. Phillips was out of the country two weeks before his St. Barts trip became public on Dec. 29, and regretted not ordering his former top cabinet minister home immediately. But the Premier has been adamant that no one was aware of the trip before Mr. Phillips left. “He never told anyone he was leaving,” Mr. Ford said on Dec. 30.
But e-mails suggest that Mr. Ford’s chief of staff, James Wallace, and other advisers, were aware the top cabinet minister would not be in the Toronto area for the holidays, as Mr. Ford’s government urged people not to gather with family and to stay home.
An e-mail from Mr. Phillips’s former chief of staff, Andrew Sidnell, with the subject line “Minister Phillips Away,” was sent on Dec. 4 to Mr. Wallace and Simone Daniels, Mr. Ford’s deputy chief of staff. Mr. Sidnell said his boss “will not be in Toronto and not available in person between the dates of December 12th and January 19th.”
“He will be completely available via teleconference, teams, zoom, etc. and will still be attending cabinet meetings virtually. I think he will let the Premier know directly as well,” Mr. Sidnell wrote. Mr. Phillips departed for the island on Dec. 13.
Other e-mails sent in July and August from Mr. Sidnell showed top staff members in the Premier’s office, including Mr. Wallace and recently-shuffled head of strategic communications, Dan Miles, were aware that Mr. Phillips was planning to be away from Aug. 15 to Sept. 8, which Ms. Daniels dubbed as his “vacation dates.” It was later revealed Mr. Phillips travelled to Switzerland in August, returning on Aug. 31, and that he quarantined upon his return.
Ivana Yelich, Mr. Ford’s director of media relations, said no one in the office asked about Mr. Phillips’s whereabouts on either occasion.
“Mr. Phillips informed the Premier’s office that he would not be in Toronto, but available through virtual means. No further detail was requested by our office as it’s common for ministers to not be in Toronto during COVID and the legislature was not sitting at the time,” she said.
“Over the summer months, with the legislature not sitting and members back in their ridings, it’s not unusual for elected officials – like all Ontarians – to spend time away from the office with their families.”
Ms. Yelich did not respond to questions about whether Mr. Phillips informed Mr. Ford about his departure directly. The Globe requested an interview with Mr. Wallace, but did not hear back. Mr. Sidnell did not respond to a call for comment.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who was a cabinet minister in Kathleen Wynne’s government, said it’s “inconceivable” that a minister could leave the country without informing the Premier or the office.
“It’s clear from those documents that in fact they did know, and they didn’t tell the people of Ontario again until they got caught, and Doug Ford then misled the people of Ontario about when he and his team knew about this. To me it’s completely untrustworthy and deceitful,” he said.
Mr. Phillips, who owns a home in Toronto, has represented the suburban riding of Ajax, east of the city, since 2018.
Mr. Phillips is the former chair of Postmedia Network. Mr. Wallace, a former Toronto Sun and Postmedia executive, became Mr. Ford’s chief of staff in August, 2019, after Dean French resigned from the position amid a patronage scandal.
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