Government by Gmail: Ford chief of staff appears to omit texts in public disclosure

Government by Gmail: Ford chief of staff appears to omit texts in public disclosure

As questions continue to arise about the use of Gmail for government businesses in Queen’s Park, Global News can reveal that Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s chief of staff appears to have failed to disclose text messages to privacy officials in a freedom request of information.

Patrick Sackville, who has served as Ford’s chief of staff since December 2022, faces scrutiny after a Global News investigation uncovered his use of private email for government business, with memos, communications documents and legislation confidential information shared with other staff in the Prime Minister’s Office on non-governmental platforms.

While the Premier’s Office acknowledged the use of Google-based platforms for “collaboration on political materials or discussions,” the government insisted it complies with the province’s disclosure laws.

“Our expectation remains that all staff comply with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Archives and Records Keeping Act,” a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office told Global News.

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However, a series of freedom of information requests for communications sent by Sackville suggest the chief of staff may have withheld messages sent to his personal email account and text messages sent to the chief executive of Metrolinx, a Crown corporation. .

According to Ontario’s Auditor General, failing to disclose government records could be considered a violation of the province’s privacy laws.

“Any communication…about government business is still subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and is not excluded from this law even if the communication occurred in a personal email account,” an excerpt from the auditor general’s 2023 Greenbelt scandal investigation. confirm.

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The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on questions sent by Global News.

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“This matter is currently before the Information and Privacy Commissioner. “We cannot comment while that process progresses,” a spokesperson said.

In 2023, after the CEO of Metrolinx sent an email to Sackville complaining that the Ford government “makes these communications decisions” for the independent agency, Global News sought to understand how frequently the Ford chief of staff communicated. Prime Minister and the CEO of Metrolinx.

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But twin freedom of information requests yielded different results: text messages between the couple were shared by one and appeared to be withheld by the other.

Global News asked Phil Verster and Patrick Sackville for all communications between the two over a six-month period.

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Metrolinx published more than 100 pages of communications between the two, most of which were redacted for various reasons, including advice to the government, cabinet records and financial interests.

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However, an identical request for the same records for Sakville’s communication to Verster was 29 pages shorter than Metrolinx’s response.

Missing from cabinet office records were scores of text messages between Verster and Sackville discussing issues related to the crown agency, which Metrolinx deemed were within the limits of the request.

Text messages and writing.

At first glance, most of the text messages posted by Verster seem somewhat harmless.

“Quick note to just say ‘Congratulations and all the best for 2023’ – let’s have a great year,” Verster wrote in a Jan. 9, 2023, text message to Sackville shortly after being named chief of staff.

“Thank you very much Phil,” Sackville responded. “The best for you too. “We are excited to continue our work together and deepen our partnership.”

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The text messages, however, also include references to government affairs.

“I felt like everything went well,” Sackville texted on Jan. 24, 2023. “Glad we were able to move forward in these discussions.”

“We are preparing for the subsequent cabinet,” Sackville said on February 17, 2023. “The invitation will be received soon.”

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The text messages also include plans between the couple to schedule several phone calls, and Sackville apologizes at one point for being late. “Minister disaster over here,” she wrote.

Several messages, provided by Verster, were redacted in their entirety because Metrolinx argued they would reveal “advice to the government” or involve cabinet records that are excluded from disclosure laws. Sackville did not publish any of these messages, with or without redaction.

Global News asked provincial privacy officials about the inconsistency and specifically why Sackville’s text messages were omitted from the document package.

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“Our office received records in response to the request,” officials said. “If you have questions about the contents of the records and/or the package provided to you, you may follow up with the person who provided the records to our office.”

Global News is appealing the decision and asking Ontario’s privacy watchdog to force Sackville and the cabinet office to complete a new search.

After an investigation into the Greenbelt scandal by Ontario’s auditor general found that senior Ford government staff were using personal email addresses, Global News filed a series of freedom of information requests in an attempt to obtain emails that Sackville and other senior staff sent using private Gmail accounts. .

A request for all emails sent between July and the end of November 2022, the period when the Ford government was deciding which parcels of land to remove from the protected green belt for development, met only one record.

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The only result was an exchange between Sackville and then-housing chief of staff Ryan Amato that Sackville said was inconsistent with his use of email for government business.

“I am now aware that Mr. Amato had sent me an email from his personal account to my personal account a few days before October 27, 2022,” Sackville wrote to the integrity commissioner. “I don’t remember seeing that email until I went back to search my records.”

Global News, however, has seen a trove of government-related emails to and from Sackville’s personal Gmail address to other government officials, discussing and drafting provincial policies, as well as considering the interests of stakeholders.

None of those emails were made available to Global News as part of the freedom of information request for Sackville’s Gmail outbox.

The NDP believes the undisclosed emails and text messages are a clear sign that the government is trying to hide information from the public.

“There is now clear evidence that Mr. Sackville has misled the integrity commissioner,” said NDP Leader Marit Stiles.