TORONTO — Advocacy group Democracy Watch is asking a court to overturn three decisions by Ontario’s integrity watchdog, arguing the commissioner allows unethical lobbying by connections to Premier Doug Ford and his ministers.
“Dozens of people who have helped or worked for Doug Ford or his Cabinet ministers or the [Progressive Conservative] PC Party have set themselves up in lobbying firms and, even though many of them have never lobbied before, big businesses are hiring them because they know it will get them inside access to Ford and his ministers,” Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said in a statement Wednesday.
Democracy Watch has filed three applications for judicial review of decisions made by Ontario integrity commissioner J. David Wake in the 2019-20 year.
The commissioner is an independent officer of the legislature, meaning he works for all MPPs, not the government of the day. His office is tasked with enforcing ethics rules.
The commissioner’s annual reports, which describe his decisions, do not name the lobbyists or politicians he’s investigated for breaking the rules. But the decisions being challenged were all issued in the 2019/20 year, meaning they apply to MPPs elected when Ford’s PCs took power in 2018.
These are Wake’s decisions being challenged in court:
- He ruled a lobbyist was not in a conflict of interest when she lobbied a public-office holder whose political campaign she had previously worked on;
- He ruled a consultant lobbyist did nothing wrong when he lobbied two public officials whose political campaigns he had previously worked on;
- He also ruled three consultant lobbyists did not break the rules when they helped sell tickets for a political fundraiser that would benefit the same people they were lobbying.
Democracy Watch says that Wake was “biased” when he made the rulings, because he needed Ford and his MPPs to vote for his re-appointment to get a second term at the end of 2020.
A spokesperson for Wake’s office said the integrity commissioner could not comment because the matter is before the courts.
Ford and his ministers have been accused of being in a conflict of interest because they’re being lobbied by people who used to work for them. Lobbyists who’ve worked for Ford, the PC party, and four cabinet ministers have gone on to do work for companies like Walmart and Revera, a private nursing-home operator that’s being sued for allegedly neglecting to protect seniors from COVID-19.
In November, a HuffPost Canada analysis found that lobbyists who worked for private nursing-home operators during the pandemic have donated at least $30,000 to Ford’s PC party.
In 2019, The Globe and Mail reported that Ford took strategic advice and cabinet suggestions from the heads of two lobbying firms, both of whom worked on his 2018 election campaign.
Ford’s spokesperson Ivana Yelich did not respond to questions sent by email Wednesday.
Lobbyists who want to influence policy in Ontario must register with Wake’s office and describe their aims. They’re forbidden from placing public officials in a conflict of interest, and the integrity commissioner’s guidance says this is likely to happen when they’ve had significant past interaction with the official they’re lobbying or a significant role in their office or on a past campaign.
The commissioner sometimes advises would-be lobbyists to wait for a one-year “cooling-off period” before lobbying someone they used to work for.
“This is ludicrous,” Conacher told HuffPost. “Conflict of interest does not disappear. Doug Ford owes those people, who helped him win the election, until he leaves politics.”
“No other commissioner in Canada has set such a short ‘cooling-off’ time period for lobbyists – all have said the conflict of interest created by assisting a politician lasts for several years,” Democracy Watch wrote in a report released Dec. 17.
The group said that of the 27 lobbyists Wake investigated for potentially breaking the rules since 2018, 23 of them were let off the hook.
“Commissioner Wake’s weak enforcement record shows he is a lapdog who should not have been appointed to a second term.”