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Government by Gmail: Ford’s chief of staff appears to have omitted text messages from public disclosure

As questions continue to swirl over the use of Gmail for government businesses at Queen’s Park, Global News can reveal that Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s chief of staff appears to have not disclosed text messages to privacy officials in a freedom of information request.

Patrick Sackville, who has served as Ford’s chief of staff since December 2022, has been facing scrutiny after a Global News investigation uncovered his use of private email for government business – with memos, communications documents, and confidential legislation being shared with other staff in the Premier’s office on non-government platforms.

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

“Our expectation remains that all staff are complying with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and Archives and Recordkeeping Act,” a spokesperson for the Premier’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 on his personal email account and texts sent to the CEO of Metrolinx, a Crown corporation.

Failing to disclose government records, according to Ontario’s Auditor General, could be viewed as 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 act even if the communication occurred on a personal email account,” an extract from the auditor general’s 2023 Greenbelt scandal investigation confirms.

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

“This matter is currently before the Information and Privacy Commissioner. We are unable to comment while it works its way through that process,” a spokesperson said.

In 2023, after the CEO of Metrolinx emailed Sackville complaining that the Ford government “makes these comms decisions” for the arms-length agency, Global News sought to understand how often the premier’s chief of staff and Metrolinx CEO communicated.

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But twin freedom of information requests returned different results: text messages between the pair were shared by one and appeared to be withheld by another.

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

Metrolinx released more than 100 pages of communications between the pair, the majority of which was redacted for a variety of reasons including advice to government, cabinet records and economic interests.

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

Missing from the cabinet office records were reams of text messages between Verster and Sackville discussing issues related to the crown agency, which Metrolinx felt fell within the bounds of the request.

Text messages and redactions

On its face, most of the text messages released by Verster seem somewhat innocuous.

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“Quick note to just say ‘Congratulations & Best for 2023’ – let’s have a great year,” Verster wrote in a Jan. 9, 2023, text to Sackville shortly after he was appointed chief of staff.

“Thanks so much Phil,” Sackville replied. “Best to you too. Excited to continue our work together and deepen our partnership.”

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

“Felt that went well,” Sackville texted in Jan. 24, 2023. “Glad we could advance these discussions.”

“We are setting up for after cabinet,” Sackville said on Feb. 17, 2023. “Invitation forthcoming.”

The text messages also include plans between the pair to set up several phone calls and Sackville apologizing at one point for being late. “Minister disaster over here,” he wrote.

Several messages, provided by Verster, were redacted entirely because Metrolinx argued they would reveal “advice to government” or involved cabinet records which are excluded from disclosure laws. None of these messages, with or without redactions, were released by Sackville.

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

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

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

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

A request for all emails sent between July and late November 2022, the period in which the Ford government was deciding which parcels of land to remove from the protected Greenbelt for development, was met just one record.

The lone result was an exchange between Sackville and then-housing chief of staff Ryan Amato, which Sackville claimed was inconsistent with his use of email for government business.

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“I am now aware that Mr. Amato had sent me an e-mail from his personal account to my personal account a few days before October 27, 2022,” Sackville wrote to the integrity commissioner. “I have no recollection of seeing that e-mail until I searched my records again.”

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

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

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

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

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