The report from the Auditor General and yesterday’s report from the Integrity Commissioner together paint a picture of a chaotic and dysfunctional Government where Doug Ford and Steve Clark don’t talk to each other about the big policy issues of the day. 

In his pathetic mea culpa earlier today Steve Clark said he was sorry but he wouldn’t be resigning. Brazenly, he believes he can tough it out. He has the confidence of the only person who matters, the Premier.

The Auditor General and the Integrity Commissioner deserve a round of applause for getting us this far. But we still don’t know the whole story nor do we have the complete unvarnished truth.

It is obvious from reading his report that the Integrity Commissioner bends over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to people who know more than they are letting on. I have no quarrel with that. Being even-handed is in David Wake’s job description - and in his DNA.

The former President of the Ontario Home Builders Association (OHBA), Bob Schickedanz, who sold the Bathurst land to Rice told Wake:

“they (the Schickedanz company) had absolutely no idea the government was considering removals from the Greenbelt.”

I laughed out loud at that one! Luca Bucci, former Chief of Staff to Steve Clark, was Schickedanz’s right hand man at the OHBA. (Bob Schickedanz photo right)

Forgetful congenital Liar

Ryan Amato comes across as a forgetful congenital liar, inventing meetings with the Premier to get staff to do his bidding. They believed his orders came from on high – from Clark or the Premier’s Office. (Click "read more" for the G&M Editorial) 

The Auditor General relied on Amato’s evidence to tell us that at the BILD dinner on 14 September 2022 two prominent developers (Gasperis and Rice) approached him and gave him packages containing information to remove the Duffins Rouge and Bathurst lands from the Greenbelt. Yet David Wake gives an alternative version where no package was passed over by Rice at the dinner. Instead, the package was collected in person by Amato at Rice’s offices on 27 or 28 September 2022. I am surprised Wake didn’t call Amato back to clarify which version was true. 

For the rest of us looking on, the events described by Wake require the willing suspension of disbelief.

Evidence Under Oath

Both the Auditor General and the Integrity Commissioner have powers to summons witnesses to give evidence under oath. 

Members of the public like me don’t have that power. So when we file Freedom of Information requests and the institution stonewalls or says records don’t exist, we are stymied. The only option is to appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner whose analysts, though incredibly helpful, have a huge backlog of cases to work through. There is also a limit to the number of appeals anyone can file at any given time. The appeals will simply wait in the queue until an analyst is ready to deal with them. I have six appeals in the pipeline, the first filed on 17 March 2023.

Neither the Auditor General (so far as I can gather) nor the Integrity Commissioner interviewed the Chief Executive of Southlake, Arden Krystal, or her Vice President of Capital Facilities, John Marshman. And, to this day, Southlake says it has no records of the 1 November 2022 meeting at King Municipal Centre when Michael Rice offered land for a new Southlake for a nominal fee. Yet hospitals are public institutions and are required by law to keep records.

Was there a tip-off?

Commissioner Wake looked at Rice’s offer of land for a new hospital and whether it signalled that he had been tipped-off that the Bathurst lands were to be removed from the Greenbelt. Wake concludes it was all above board. 

Wake says Rice provided documentary evidence that he had contacted Southlake earlier about other sites that could be suitable (see schematic for adjacent Rice lands). And we are told it was the Mayor of King, Steve Pellegrini, who first raised the issue of using some of the Bathurst lands for a new hospital.

All this is very familiar. Pellegrini says he had been searching for a site for a new hospital since 2019 but the Township has no records of how the search was conducted or, indeed, if it was done at all. Pellegrini has long insisted a hospital can be built anywhere if that is what the Province decides. But there are no records to show if Pellegrini asked his own Director of Growth Management, Stephen Naylor, if it would be possible to site a new hospital on prime agricultural land in the Greenbelt and Naylor won’t say. There’s nothing in King’s Official Plan about a new hospital in the Township. I’ve filed an appeal on Stephen Naylor and what he knew. 

I also don’t know when Pellegrini told his fellow councillors that he had been scouring the municipality since 2019 for a site for a new hospital. Presumably four years ago.

Rice tells Wake he knew the Greenbelt would be opened-up

Wake tells us that Rice asked his staff to identify potential land acquisitions in the Greenbelt that met specified criteria. We are not told what these were. But “pursuant to this plan” Rice entered into an agreement to purchase the Bathurst lands on 3 May 2022. 

Rice mentioned this agreement to purchase the Bathurst lands when he met King’s Chief Administrative Officer, Daniel Kostopoulos, at the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority dinner on 22 June 2022. At this stage and subsequently, it seems clear Rice was talking about the Bathurst lands not his other land holdings in the area.

According to Commissioner Wake, on 27 or 28 September 2022 Rice gave Amato 

“a map outlining the area proposed to be removed from the Greenbelt, a rationale supporting the removal, a summary confirming consultants had been retained to do environmental and servicing assessments and an explanation of various servicing options for the site.”

We do not know if this information was made available to Pellegrini or Naylor on 17 October 2022 when they had a briefing meeting with Rice. Pellegrini is on record saying servicing was a huge issue.

Servicing Challenges

Amongst other things, the Auditor General wanted to talk to Rice to find out more about his approaches to servicing housing developments and whether land recently removed from the Greenbelt would be expected to create additional servicing challenges. Rice’s lawyers told the AG that their client would not be able to contribute anything that would be relevant to the audit. So he refused to appear.

In Wake’s narrative we are invited to believe that it was, in effect, an open secret in the development community that parts of the Greenbelt were to be opened up for development. Paragraph 282 sets out Rice’s thinking. We learn that Rice had his staff track every municipal meeting in addition to provincial developments. This was Rice’s day job and if other developers didn’t realise what was happening “they were asleep”.

Despite all the horizon scanning Rice did not believe the Greenbelt changes would come as early as November 2022. Which rather begs the old question: when did he first know that his Bathurst lands were to be removed from the Greenbelt and opened-up for development?

Up for grabs

In one sense it doesn’t matter. Rice had worked out that, with Ford at the helm, the Greenbelt was going to be up for grabs. 

So he made his offer to Southlake on 1 November 2022, betting on a hunch that, at some point, the Bathurst lands would become developable.

And Commissioner Wake believed him.

There will be a debate on the Commissioner's report at Queen’s Park within 30 days. 

More will come out.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Update on 1 September 2023: a blistering editorial from the Toronto Star: From bad to worse on the Greenbelt

Update on 2 September 2023: From the Toronto Star's Martin Reg Cohn: Doug Ford made it his job to know as little as possible about the Greenbelt deals but his fingerprints are all over them.

From the Integrity Commissioner's Report: Michael Rice and the Bathurst lands

Paragraph number [94] Michael Rice leads the Rice Group of Companies. Mr. Rice explained that the Rice Group is a traditional land developer -- it buys land, takes it through the development process and frequently retains industrial and commercial assets. When it has a residential development project, it either sells lots or it partners with other companies that specialize in residential development. 

[95] Mr. Rice advised that for many years he has believed that the Greenbelt would need to be opened to some extent for housing development, as he is of the view that it has caused a land shortage which has increased the price of housing. He told me that he believes Ontario has had a housing crisis since at least 2017, and all political parties agree that many homes need to be built. He explained that he was aware of Premier Ford’s statements about opening up the Greenbelt in early 2018, and has observed that since being elected in 2018, this government has taken steps that indicated to him the “writing was on the wall” that lands in the Greenbelt would be opened for development. He cited as examples the More Homes More Choice Act, 2019, the ability of the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to decide growth areas, and the reduced role for conservation authorities and consideration of endangered species. In December 2021, he asked his staff to identify potential land acquisitions in the Greenbelt that met specified criteria. Pursuant to this plan, on May 3, 2022 he entered into an agreement of purchase and sale to purchase a 687-acre property in King Township offered for public sale by Schickedanz Bros. on March 28, 2022. The deal for this property was closing on September 15, 2022. 

[96] Mr. Rice told me he had previously met Mr. Amato at a handful of political fundraisers or other events, while the latter worked for the Minister of Transportation. He had also assisted in hosting a political fundraiser for the Minister of Transportation in early 2022, with which Mr. Amato had very limited contact. These details are covered later in this report at paragraph 279. Mr. Amato initially told me he did not recall if he had met Mr. Rice prior to the BILD dinner. 

[97] Both agree they spoke briefly at the BILD dinner. Mr. Rice told me that, as the closing of the King Township property was the next day and on his mind, he said to Mr. Amato “Hey, if you guys are looking at the Greenbelt lands, I have something great that is the site you need to look at.” Mr. Rice says that Mr. Amato responded “okay.” 

[98] Mr. Amato recalled Mr. Rice mentioning a property to him in passing at the BILD dinner. Specifically, he recalled Mr. Rice saying that he had some property in the Greenbelt and if we were to do something, he would like us to take a look at it. He says he responded to Mr. Rice by saying “I will let you know.” 

King Township 

[272] Approximately 522 acres was removed from the Greenbelt at the King Township site and 132 acres within the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan was redesignated from “countryside” to “settlement area” for a total of 654 acres. 

[273] As set out above, at the September 14, 2022 BILD dinner, Mr. Rice mentioned this property briefly to Mr. Amato as a good candidate for removal from the Greenbelt. 

[274] Mr. Rice told me that Mr. Amato called him at his office a few days or a week after the BILD dinner and asked if he could put together a package of information on the site. As a result of receiving this request, in combination with their brief interaction at the BILD dinner, Mr. Rice believed the government was looking at the Greenbelt. 

[275] Mr. Rice said he would put together a package, which he then did, and then Mr. Amato came to his office to pick up the package around the end of September. They spoke briefly again at his office, and Mr. Rice said he “walked him through it,” saying “here is the site, here are the benefits.” 

[276] Mr. Rice provided Mr. Amato with a document dated September 27, 2022, with a map outlining the area proposed to be removed from the Greenbelt, a rationale supporting the removal, a summary confirming consultants had been retained to do environmental and servicing assessments and an explanation of various servicing options for the site. John McGovern, Senior Vice President of Policy and Planning for the Rice Group, confirmed that he pulled together this package of information for Mr. Rice and that it was his understanding that Mr. Rice would be meeting with Mr. Amato the next morning. This indicates that Mr. Rice and Mr. Amato met on or about September 27 or 28, 2022. 

[277] Mr. Amato confirmed that he called Mr. Rice a few days after the BILD dinner. He said he asked “if he could provide me with any additional information on the property. And I ran through some of the high-level criteria that we were discussing at the time. Those were questions that needed to be answered and he said he would get something together. But in that conversation, there was no mention of a program. It was just a question following up on something he mentioned to me in passing.” He confirmed he met with Mr. Rice at Mr. Rice’s office to pick up the package. 

[278] Mr. Amato told me he did not know if he had met Michael Rice prior to meeting him at the BILD dinner. 

[279] Mr. Rice told me he had met Mr. Amato at a handful of fundraisers and events prior to the BILD dinner. He also explained that in the spring of 2022 Mr. Amato assisted his daughter in organizing a fundraiser for Minister Caroline Mulroney, attended by approximately 25 people. This occurred while Mr. Amato was working for Minister Mulroney. Mr. Rice advised that he did not recall corresponding with Mr. Amato at the time, but that his daughter was in touch with Mr. Amato in March of 2022, after her earlier contact in Minister Mulroney’s office took a leave of absence, to decide the date of the fundraiser. 

[280] When asked about this, Mr. Amato confirmed that he was briefly in touch with Mr. Rice’s daughter to confirm a date for the fundraiser, but said he had no further involvement with it. He said it was not part of his duties to organize the fundraiser, only to coordinate it with the minister’s schedule. 

[281] There has been speculation in the media and in Ms. Stiles’ affidavit that Mr. Rice must have been tipped off about the government’s intentions, in part because he obtained title to it on September 15, 2022. This was less than two months before 522 acres of it were removed from the Greenbelt and 132 acres of it were redesignated as a settlement area within the Oak Ridges Moraine. 

[282] Mr. Rice is an experienced land developer, who has significant industrial and commercial land holdings, in addition to some residential holdings. He is adamant that no one tipped him off or told him that the government would be taking land out of the Greenbelt. He said “[t]he crystal ball that they mentioned in the paper that we must have had is our knowledge and what we do on an every day basis on Greenbelt land, on Whitebelt land, on developed lands, lands that are going to come into the urban belt, airport land, that’s our business.” As set out above, at paragraph 95, Mr. Rice explained to me his longer-term rationale for thinking the government would permit development on Greenbelt lands at some point in the future because the housing crisis was becoming so acute with an increasing population and limited land supply. He told me he was convinced that the Greenbelt would open if even the Liberal Party came into power in the 2022 election and that if, by 2022, a developer was not thinking about the Greenbelt opening up “they were asleep.” He noted that his staff track every municipal meeting in addition to provincial developments. As factors shaping his thinking, he pointed to some actions of this government, including that he understood the government had “told the regional municipalities, ‘We want your [official plan] in here in June of ’22. File it. It has to be done or we will take action on our own.’” He also mentioned the 2019 More Homes, More Choice Act, telling me “I mean that was the beginning of the smashing of the conservation authority which changes your perspective on land.” He told me “So this government has made it abundantly clear since like ’19 or ’20, ‘This is what we’re doing, we’re moving development ahead.’ That didn’t mean ‘Yes, we are taking it out of the Greenbelt.’ They never said that. I said they’re taking it out of the Greenbelt because we don’t have land.” 

[283] Mr. Rice shared with me copies of agendas for his company’s acquisitions meetings from April through November 2022, indicating there was a “Greenbelt Strategy” item discussed regularly with a number of different areas and sites discussed, including the King Township property. 

[284] Mr. Rice candidly admitted that his interactions with Mr. Amato, specifically their brief interaction at the BILD dinner and then Mr. Amato’s request for further information and visit to Mr. Rice’s office to pick up that information, “told me that they were looking at the Greenbelt.” However, he said that “in fairness to Ryan and the minister, he never told me they were doing it.” Mr. Rice was also clear he didn’t think it was going to happen as early as November 2022. 

[285] Mr. Rice provided me with a copy of the investment proposal he developed for potential investors. He advised that he “syndicated” this land deal, by taking on several other investors to fund a large proportion of the $80,000,000 purchase price for this property. Taking on limited partners lowered both his risk and the profits he might earn from this investment. He told me, and I accept, that if he had known the lands would be removed from the Greenbelt so soon, he would have funded the purchase himself. He also told me that he offered the vendor, Schickedanz Brothers Ltd., an opportunity to participate in the investment but that they declined. 

[286] I spoke with Bob Schickedanz, a partner in Farsight Homes and former president of the Ontario Home Builders Associations from 2019 to 2022. He confirmed that while he is not on the leadership team of Schickedanz Brothers Ltd., he worked there from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, he has an interest in this family company and was familiar with the sale of the property to the Rice Group. He explained that Schickedanz Brothers Ltd. was leaving the land development business and offering this property for public sale for $80 million was part of this process. He was aware that subsequent to entering into the initial agreement of purchase and sale, Mr. Rice had  made two further offers to Schickedanz Brothers Ltd. with respect to this property. One was to participate in syndication and remain invested in the site, and the other was to agree to a one- year extension of the agreement of purchase and sale, with a new price of $200 million. He said his family business decided to proceed with the initial agreement closing in 2022 because they thought it was a good deal and, in their view, the one-year extension would not likely result in a sale and the land would have been tied up for another year. He said they had absolutely no idea the government was considering removals from the Greenbelt. 

[287] It also has been brought to my attention through media reporting and submissions received from the public, that there was speculation that Mr. Rice must have known something in advance about the government’s intentions. This speculation was founded largely because before the November 4, 2022 announcement on Greenbelt removals, Mr. Rice was in discussions with a local hospital and representatives of King Township about using some of this property for a new hospital site. 

[288] My staff interviewed the mayor and chief administrative officer of King Township. Both confirmed that in the summer of 2022 the mayor raised with Mr. Rice the possibility of using some of this land for a hospital. The mayor explained that he was of the view that a hospital located within King Township would be very beneficial to his community and it was his understanding that, unlike other types of development, hospitals were permitted to be built on Greenbelt lands and not subject to the sewage treatment allocation rules that could potentially limit residential development in the area. The mayor explained that other lands in the vicinity had already been discussed as a possible hospital site and that if Mr. Rice contributed land from his recently purchased property, he believed it would potentially be a viable option for the hospital and a significant benefit for King Township.  

[289] Both Mr. Rice and Mr. McGovern, who also attended the meeting with the mayor and the chief administrative officer, told me these officials initiated the conversation about using some of this particular piece of land as a new hospital site. They also told me that Mr. Rice had already been discussing using other properties he owned in the region for the new hospital site and provided documentation to support his evidence in this regard with respect to past communications with hospital officials and other sites under consideration. With respect to the King Township site, Mr. Rice and his employee told me they were interested in the hospital option, as they anticipated they would be able to potentially develop medical buildings, a long- term care facility and other long-term assets on land that was in the Greenbelt and not necessarily available for other types of development. 

[290] Mr. Rice explained that if he had known in the summer of 2022 that the King Township property would be removed from the Greenbelt, he would not have entered into the discussions about using part of this particular site for the hospital. However, he told me that given his earlier discussions, he is “committed” and “sticking to it” with respect to making land available for the hospital. 


Globe and Mail editorial 31 August 2023: The Ugly Greenbelt Saga just got Uglier

Thanks to a report earlier this month from the province’s Auditor-General, the Ontario public woke up on Wednesday already knowing that the 15 sites the Ford government opened for development in the Greenbelt this year were selected in “a biased process that was non-transparent to the public,” and which led to “certain prominent developers receiving preferential treatment.”

Now, thanks to an equally damning report on the same subject from the Integrity Commissioner, the public knows this process was further compromised by the actions of Ontario’s Housing Minister, Steve Clark, and that it involved violations of the provincial law governing conflicts of interest and the sharing of insider information by elected officials.

Mr. Clark did not himself directly commit those violations. The problem was his lack of effort to prevent them.

The Integrity Commissioner, J. David Wake, found that Mr. Clark failed to oversee his former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, as the latter went about collecting information from favoured developers on potential sites to be removed from the Greenbelt, and then pushed those sites through the truncated and shoddy selection process laid bare in the Auditor-General’s report.

Mr. Amato, who resigned last week, seems to have gone rogue. As a political staffer, he wasn’t supposed to direct public servants in the housing ministry unless he was acting as a proxy for his minister or the Premier. Which he wasn’t.

But, as Mr. Wake reported, department staff “actually believed that [Mr. Amato] was filling a proxy role from the Premier’s Office or, in one case, from Premier Ford himself,” and that he “succeeded in this deception” by dropping frequent references to meetings with staff in the Premier’s office that Mr. Wake says didn’t occur.

All of this activity was the result of a single sentence in Mr. Clark’s mandate letter after the 2022 re-election of the Ford government, in which the Premier asked his Housing Minister to, “in Fall 2022, complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt.”

The Integrity Commissioner says Mr. Clark and Mr. Amato misinterpreted that instruction as meaning they should find a way to quickly remove specific sites from the Greenbelt, rather than explore the possibility of breaking an election promise made repeatedly by Mr. Clark and Premier Ford not to open up the Greenbelt to development, and to codify a potential process for selecting properties.

Mr. Wake also concluded that Mr. Amato effectively tipped off some developers to what was in the confidential mandate letter by going back to them for information about land they had personally proposed to him for removal from the Greenbelt. Developers “are not stupid,” Mr. Wake said.

Meanwhile, his boss, Mr. Clark, left him to his devices. The Integrity Commissioner ruled that, between misinterpreting the mandate letter, not supervising Mr. Amato and then failing to ask questions about how the selection process worked before taking it to cabinet, the Housing Minister violated the conflict of interest and insider information sections of the Members’ Integrity Act. 

In ruling so, Mr. Wake has struck a blow for ministerial responsibility. It may be true Mr. Clark was unaware of what his chief of staff was up to, but that doesn’t save him. Instead, as Mr. Wake says, it was “an aggravating element” that led “to the private interests of certain developers being furthered improperly.”

Mr. Wake is recommending that the legislature vote to reprimand Mr. Clark by accepting his report. That’s unlikely, of course, since Mr. Ford’s PC Party has a majority, and Mr. Ford is not someone to admit fault. Both he and Mr. Clark said Wednesday that Mr. Clark will not be resigning, and that the minister will “ensure public trust and confidence is maintained every step of the way” as the government goes about meeting its goal of building 1.5 million homes in 10 years.

Sorry, but it’s too late for trust and confidence. The two damning reports point to so many irregularities in the Greenbelt saga that Mr. Clark’s continued presence in cabinet should raise serious questions about Mr. Ford’s judgment.

The reports’ combined findings also mean the government should reverse itself and put the land in question back into the Greenbelt. If Mr. Ford wants to restart the process, he should do it in a way that, in the Integrity Commissioner’s words, isn’t so flawed as to be “almost reckless.”