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Investigation into housing minister's chief of staff after scathing Greenbelt report being considered

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Ontario’s integrity commissioner is reviewing a request to investigate the way the housing minister’s chief of staff handled opening Greenbelt land to development.

The request was made from the Premier’s Office and is “under review,” a spokesperson for the integrity commissioner told CTV News Toronto in an email Thursday.

If the integrity commissioner decides to pursue an investigation, he will look into whether Ryan Amato, the staffer primarily responsible for choosing which sites on the Greenbelt would be opened up for development, “acted contrary to the requirements of the Public Service of Ontario Act.”

This includes reviewing potential conflicts of interest.

The request by the Premier’s Office was one of 15 recommendations made in a scathing Auditor General report that blasted the process in which decisions regarding the Greenbelt were made, indicating that it “favoured certain developers,” among other things.

Of the 7,400 acres of land removed from the Greenbelt, the report found that 92 per cent could be tied to three developers with direct access to the housing ministry.

Fourteen of the 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt were proposed directly by the Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff. The remaining site was proposed by a six-person team of public servants tasked with assessing land sites for possible removal.

The owners of the 15 land sites chosen through this process could see more than an $8.3 billion increase to the values of their properties, the report found.

The report released Wednesday also noted that Amato altered criteria for land removal after his team highlighted that most would not be approved within those parameters. A rigid three-week timeline was set for reviewing and selecting sites for development.

Speaking to reporters after the findings were released, Premier Doug Ford acknowledged the decision-making process was flawed and deserved review. In light of this, his government will implement 14 of the 15 recommendations made by the auditor general.

The one recommendation he will not be implementing is the re-evaluation of the Greenbelt land removal.

The integrity commissioner is already investigating whether the province’s housing minister tipped off developers ahead of revealing the government’s plans to to allow development in the Greenbelt and Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve.

The probe will look into whether Clark contravened the Members Integrity Act, specifically when it comes to conflicts of interest and the use of insider information.

Clark has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and has said he will cooperate with the investigation.

Speaking to Newstalk1010’s Moore in the Morning on Thursday, Clark said the premier continues to have confidence in both him and his staff.

“We've committed to the premier that we will implement the 14 recommendations, and we will cooperate with anyone else who decides to continue an investigation or start one,” he said.

“I'll cooperate with whoever decides to investigate this file I've got I've got nothing to hide.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford (right), followed by Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, leave a press conference following the release of the Auditor General’s Special Report on Changes to the Greenbelt, at Queens Park, in Toronto, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Arlyn McAdorey

The Ontario Provincial Police’s anti-rackets branch has been reviewing complaints against the Ford government regarding its plans to develop the Greenbelt since mid-December. It has not launched an official investigation.

In a statement to CTV News Toronto on Wednesday, an OPP spokesperson said they were aware of the auditor general’s report and that it will “take time for our members to fully review the document.”

“At this time, there is no change in status in terms of the ongoing review of the matter by the OPP Anti-Rackets Branch,” Bill Dickson said.

Chris Lewis, former OPP commissioner and CTVs chief security analyst, told Newstalk1010 that the process for whether or not to open an investigation into a case like this could be lengthy.

“They're gonna have a look and say, ‘okay, what is this? What's this all about? Is this just somebody pissed off, for lack of a better term, over political issues? Or is there some merit here that there may have been a criminal offense?” he said.

“If there is, or there is even reasonably suspected, that there is they will either investigate themselves, or they'll bring in someone like the Mounties to do it independently.”

Meanwhile, the NDP have launched a petition calling on Clark to resign.

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