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Ontario’s minister of housing Steve Clark listens as Premier Doug Ford speaks during a news conference in Mississauga, Ont., on Aug. 11.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Critics of Ontario’s changes to its Greenbelt are warning that the government’s favourable treatment of a select few developers undermines not just those environmentally sensitive lands, but the province’s entire rules-based system of land development.

The report released last week by Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake into now-former municipal affairs and housing minister Steve Clark – who resigned over the long weekend – did much more than explain how Mr. Clark and his staff erred and violated the Members’ Integrity Act, 1994.

“What the Integrity Commissioner did was open up a Pandora’s box here,” said Marit Stiles, leader of the Official Opposition Ontario NDP. “There’s always going to be people out there looking to profit off the government from their relationships, but everywhere I go people are mad: they know this was a dirty deal and they don’t want their government to be corrupt.”

The Integrity Commissioner’s report lays the blame for giving developers undue access at the feet of Mr. Clark’s former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, who not only took packages of maps and land data from developers in-person – on one notable occasion visiting the business office of Michael Rice, who got 522 acres removed from the Greenbelt – but also often called those developers back for more information, adding to an ever-expanding list of favoured properties from well-connected developers.

Mr. Amato’s conduct is presented matter of factly in the report, but it’s an extraordinary departure from the way political staff behaved in previous Housing Ministries, at least according to one former minister.

“To the best of my knowledge – and my chief and I worked very closely – he never visited a developer in their corporate office,” said Ted McMeekin, who was housing minister between 2014 and 2016 in Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government. “I can recall no issue where we recommended land-based decisions to a developer or received parcels of information from a specific developer to remove chunks of the Greenbelt.”

In the end, 14 of 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt were pushed by Mr. Amato, and there are occasions in the report where he cannot explain how land got onto his radar.

The report also found several examples of developers who had been tipped by Mr. Amato spreading the news to friends and business contacts, which began a gold rush to get Greenbelt land in front of the ministry.

Take the example of the Sept. 14 Building Industry and Land Development Association dinner, where Mr. Amato was seated at a table with Silvio De Gasperis, the founder and chief executive officer of the TACC Group of Companies. According to Mr. De Gasperis, he “pulled Amato aside” and told him, “I have a package I want you to take a look at – there was an injustice done at Cherrywood (a development site) and I want you to take a look.” Mr. Amato said he put this package in his car after the dinner. Later, approximately 4,262 acres at Cherrywood would be removed from the Greenbelt.

Mr. De Gasperis also tipped off a fellow developer that things might be changing on the Greenbelt file. In his daughter’s testimony, Alana De Gasperis told the Integrity Commissioner that in “early October” Mr. Amato called her looking for detailed maps and files for the Cherrywood lands her father had mentioned at the BILD dinner. Mr. De Gasperis told the commissioner that when he learned of that call he tipped off Jack Eisenberger of Fieldgate Homes who was co-invested in some TACC lands. “He said that Mr. Eisenberger told him to ‘get Book Road in there too,’” according to the report.

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Signboards voicing opposition to the Ontario Government's plans for the Greenbelt outside homes within the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, part of Ontario's Greenbelt, on May 15.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Book Road site was purchased on Oct. 6, 2022, for $2.3-million by TACC, Fieldgate and Paradise Developments, and ultimately 1,837 acres near Hamilton owned in part by Fieldgate were removed from the Greenbelt.

Along the way, several witnesses imply these meetings, calls and suggestions from developers as commonplace, describing pitches that are never recorded in the lobbyist registry as par for the course in land development.

At one point, Nico Fidani-Diker, a long-time aid to Premier Doug Ford, told the commissioner that he joked with Mr. Amato about how typical pitches for Greenbelt removals are: “I laughed at him … I laughed at me being in that position when I was in government. Like ‘Now I am being one of those guys handing you a Greenbelt property that you will probably do nothing with.’ " Nevertheless one of the properties Mr. Fidani-Diker was handing Mr. Amato – owned by Penta Properties – was removed from the Greenbelt.

But not all developers describe the commissioner’s revelations as “business as usual.”

“We’re not talking about developers writ large. This is the way 5 per cent of the industry behaves,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, CEO of the Keesmaat Group, founding partner of Markee Developments and former chief planner for the City of Toronto. “I was in a meeting yesterday with several other developers who are angry and mortified by this. If 95 per cent of the industry was engaged in this behaviour, I would say we’re no longer governed by the rule of law.”

One of the sections in the commissioner’s report raises more questions about the conduct of a long-time friend and associate of Mr. Ford himself.

The report found that beginning on Sept. 27, Katarzyna Sliwa, a partner with the Dentons law firm, wrote a letter to Mr. Amato requesting lands at 5662 19th Ave. and 5474 19th Ave. in Markham owned by Shakir Rehmatullah, owner of Flato Developments Inc., be removed from the Greenbelt. Then on Oct. 13, 2022, Ms. Sliwa’s associate, Diana Betlej, sent Mr. Amato the maps of the Flato lands saying, “We understand that this information was requested by the ministry.”

On Sept. 29, Ms. Betlej also sent a letter to Mr. Amato on behalf of a different client, Berardino Quinto, the owner of Orca Equity Ltd., who had 13 acres (11861 and 12045 McCowan Rd. in Whitechurch-Stouffville) of Greenbelt land near the Flato lands that were also removed. Mr. Quinto said he heard about potential Greenbelt swaps from a video conference call with planners weeks before the letter was sent.

However, the report found one of those planners – Emma West from the community planning firm Bousfields Inc. – had been contacted by Mr. Rehmatullah from Flato on Sept. 27 to make a map proposing Greenbelt land swaps that included Mr. Quinto’s land and also a different 89-acre site owned by the Wyview Group. Ms. Sliwa and Ms. Betlej would go on to make requests and submissions to Mr. Amato on the Wyview sites on Oct. 6, Oct. 12 and Oct. 19.

The report says that Mr. Rehmatullah denied that anyone connected to the government tipped him about Greenbelt changes and denied being in contact with Mr. Amato on maps and requests for his lands.

“I find that Mr. Rehmatullah’s position strains credulity,” the report states. “On the evidence, I am unable to make a definitive finding as to what or who prompted Mr. Rehmatullah in the Fall of 2022 to take the steps he did to request that his small piece of land and the land of two of his fellow members of a landowners group be removed from the Greenbelt. But I find it is more likely than not that someone did.”

“Until there’s accountability, we have a much deeper problem on our hands,” Ms. Keesmaat said. “The message to the industry is, ‘Don’t follow the process.’ Why would you follow expensive planning processes when all you need to do is become really good friends with the Premier?”

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