Both Ontario’s Auditor-General and its Integrity Commissioner are launching investigations into the government’s decision to allow developers to build housing on parts of the province’s protected Greenbelt.
Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake announced on Wednesday that he would launch an investigation into whether Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark violated legislation that bans MPPs from making a decision or sharing inside information that furthers someone’s private interest.
The province’s Auditor-General, Bonnie Lysyk, also said she had agreed to a request from all three opposition parties at Queen’s Park to do a “value-for-money” audit of the “financial and environmental impact” of the government’s Greenbelt decision.
The two legislative watchdogs can investigate and issue public reports but are largely limited to recommending any actions or penalties to the legislature, where Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives hold a majority.
The Integrity Commissioner issued a statement saying he would investigate a complaint against Mr. Clark filed by Toronto NDP MPP Marit Stiles, who is expected to be confirmed as her party’s new leader next month. But Mr. Wake turned down a request to investigate Mr. Ford as well from Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, saying that complaint contained “insufficient evidence.”
Spokespeople for Mr. Clark said the minister would co-operate with both probes. Clark spokesperson Chris Poulos said the minister welcomed the dismissal of Mr. Schreiner’s complaint to the Integrity Commissioner and “looks forward to being cleared of any wrongdoing at the conclusion of the investigation” prompted by Ms. Stiles’s request.
The Progressive Conservative government announced plans in November to violate previous promises not to touch the Greenbelt, which protects more than 800,000 hectares of countryside from development and arcs around the Greater Toronto Area. Mr. Clark said he would allow developers to build up to 50,000 homes on 3,000 hectares, while adding 3,800 hectares of land elsewhere to the protected area.
The Globe and Mail and other news outlets have reported that some of the land taken out of the Greenbelt changed hands as recently as September, 2022. The land in question is expected to multiply in value once designated for housing, delivering a potential windfall estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. Several of the developers that stand to benefit from the changes are large PC donors.
The advocacy groups Democracy Watch and Environmental Defence, as well as the Ontario Liberal Party, have also called for an Ontario Provincial Police investigation. The force, which has interviewed several people who filed complaints, has said it was considering whether to launch one.
Ms. Stiles, Mr. Schreiner and interim Liberal leader John Fraser welcomed the two new Greenbelt probes.
“We’re going to keep pushing and we are going to keep looking for every opportunity we have to halt this deal,” Ms. Stiles told reporters Wednesday on a video call.
Both Mr. Ford and Mr. Clark have said they did not tip developers off before the decision was made public. But when first confronted with questions along these lines in November, Mr. Clark wouldn’t directly answer, saying he meets with “a variety of people all the time.” A day later, he told the legislature he did not tip developers off.
In a five-page sworn affidavit submitted to Mr. Wake to support her complaint, Ms. Stiles also names Mr. Clark’s former chief of staff, Luca Bucci. His appointment as chief executive officer of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association (OHBA), a development industry lobby group, was announced in June, after he left Mr. Clark’s office in April.
In the document, Ms. Stiles raises concerns of what she calls “improper lobbying.” Her affidavit says the province’s legislation prohibits lobbyists from putting public office holders in a position of “real or potential conflict of interest,” and that the Integrity Commissioner has advised this “may occur if a former government staffer lobbies their former employer before a one-year cooling off period has ended.”
Mr. Bucci did not personally respond to messages seeking comment. But the OHBA sent an e-mailed statement: “We respect the Office of the Integrity Commissioner and will co-operate with any investigation as required.”
In a brief report announcing his decision on Wednesday, Mr. Wake said that before rejecting the Green Leader’s complaint he had sought a response to its allegations from the Premier and Mr. Clark. The pair, Mr. Wake said, denied “that either had disclosed the lands selected for possible development to any developer.”
Mr. Wake writes that they pair said the affected Greenbelt lands were selected by “public servants who were subject to an enhanced confidentiality protocol” and that Mr. Clark was briefed “only a few days” before bringing it to cabinet and the announcement was made. However, the Integrity Commissioner adds he has made “no finding in this regard.”
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the Auditor-General said the government had agreed to co-operate with her probe. But Ms. Lysyk said she could not say whether her value-for-money audit would look into the allegation that developers were tipped off.
“We have not decided on the exact scope,” she said. “… I wouldn’t presuppose that.”