SASKATOON—The ongoing Dean French cronyism controversy has been personally “difficult,” says Doug Ford.
And the Ontario premier is now pledging a “deeper vetting” of appointments, saying the treasury board will now review appointments and he’s confident that’s the right approach.
“I believe it is working. We are looking at everything underneath a microscope right now,” he told the Star during a sit-down interview in Saskatchewan on the last day of the summer meeting of all 13 premiers and territorial leaders at the Council of the Federation.
His comments came a day after provincial appointee Andrew Suboch made waves by resigning as head of a committee that recommends new justices of the peace, following a review of his appointment. He has close personal ties to French.
French, Ford’s long-time friend and chief-of-staff, left his post last month after a number of questionable appointments hit the news — in particular two high-paying international postings doled out to his son’s lacrosse buddy and his wife’s cousin. Both were revoked after the connection was revealed.
Just last week, the Star revealed that Peter Fenwick, hired to a new position heading strategic transformation for the government, was a long-time insurance customer of French. He was immediately let go, and his department shuttered.
The Globe and Mail had uncovered French’s long-standing friendship with Suboch, a lawyer, who on Wednesday “advised the Justice of the Peace Appointments Advisory Committee that he is resigning effective immediately,” said Laryssa Waler Hetmanczuk, Ford’s executive director of communications.
“The attorney general has spoken to the chief justice and advised that he intends to designate a judicial member of the advisory committee as the interim chair, who will oversee this year’s justice of the peace recruitment and appointment process,” she also said in a statement Wednesday.
The Globe reported that Suboch and French’s sons were lacrosse teammates.
As the patronage controversy emerged, Ford’s office said it would probe all pending appointments.
Critics have called for a transparent, independent process.
Ford told the Star all appointments will now go through the treasury board.
“We want the best qualified people to fill those positions and if you look at some of them — I don’t know what the previous government did, but I’ve reappointed so many Liberal appointments, to the point I was even questioning our own team, saying I’m reappointing a tremendous amount of candidates that were there already.
“And I looked at them — are they qualified? And if they were qualified, I didn’t judge if they, again, were Conservative, Liberal or NDP. I reappointed probably more than what I appointed.”
When asked about French and the patronage controversy, he said: “I’ve addressed that, Dean is no longer there. He’s not involved in the province whatsoever, and we are moving forward.
“But I’m going to do a complete review, putting appointments through the treasury and continue vetting them a lot deeper.”
Of how he felt about the actions of his trusted, long-time friend and adviser he said “it’s always difficult, but I’m sure he would agree that it has to be the best interest of the province, the best interest of the people of the province. And that’s how we are going to govern.”
At the final press conference at the Saskatchewan meeting of premiers, Ford told reporters he is “responsible for everything that happens … and I take responsibility … we always look at improvement on vetting candidates — keep in mind we appoint close to 3,200 people.”
Ford sidestepped questions about French on Monday — the first opportunity reporters had to ask him about the patronage scandal since it broke — saying people don’t care about it.
“Do you really think when I walk down the street in Alberta, people worry about Dean French?” he said from Calgary, where he attended the Stampede with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and others.
He also accused the media of wanting to “get into the weeds” when people want to know about jobs and the economy.
On Thursday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said given the ongoing revelations of patronage appointments by French, “I think it’s pretty clear whatever process Mr. Ford purports to have underway is not happening.”
Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, she said “when is the next person going to slide out from under a rock that has received an appointment inappropriately? We have no transparency here. We have no accountability here and notwithstanding the comments about the former chief-of-staff, it’s Mr. Ford that’s responsible for each and every one of these appointments.”
The NDP is calling on Ford to allow a legislative committee to look at all current, pending and future appointments.
“The people of this province need to know that the people being appointed by this government are qualified, are not in those positions because they’re buddy-buddy with the premier, or with any of his members or with any of his friends or acquaintances,” Horwath said.
“That’s not the way the province should be appointing these people to these very important positions,” she added. “Who is going to be under review next? The problem that we have is nobody knows because Mr. Ford doesn’t appear to be doing anything proactively.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy