Premier Doug Ford recently held a face-to-face meeting with the co-owner of a firm that was a long-time client of his company Deco Labels & Tags.
Ford’s spokesperson says Deco hasn’t done business with the company for nearly four years, and says the meeting was about hallway medicine. But the opposition New Democrats say ethical questions remain.
Ford’s meeting on May 2 with Richard Wachsberg, chairman and co-founder of Apollo Health and Beauty Care, was revealed through a freedom of information request for the premier’s official appointment calendar.
Apollo manufactures generic-brand products such as shampoo, body wash and sunscreen for supermarkets and department stores that include Loblaw and Walmart.
Deco, the Ford family business, made labels for Apollo’s products. Apollo conducted a “large volume of business with Deco year-after-year over the course of many years,” Ford said in a sworn statement filed in a civil court proceeding, cited in a report by Toronto’s integrity commissioner in 2016.
Apollo has not been a Deco client since November 2015, Ford’s press secretary Ivana Yelich said in an email to CBC News.
Asked for the topic of Ford’s meeting with Wachsberg, Yelich said last Thursday that it was “to discuss our government’s open for business agenda.”
On Friday, after further questions from CBC about the meeting, Yelich said incorrect information had been provided by one of Ford’s staff. She said the premier actually met Wachsberg in his capacity as a volunteer member of the board of directors of Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation.
“Mr. Wachsberg is a champion for emergency medicine and they discussed their shared desire to end hallway healthcare,” said Yelich in an e-mail.
The hospital foundation is raising money to renovate the emergency department at Toronto General, and Wachsberg is “part of the cabinet working on raising philanthropic funds,” said Tennys Hanson, CEO of the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation.
“We were not aware that Mr. Wachsberg had set up this meeting but as an involved member of the board and the cabinet for the emergency department he would certainly have full information about the project and what is needed,” said Hanson in an email Tuesday to CBC News. “All of our board members can be helpful in ensuring that members of the government are aware of these needs.”
CBC News requested an interview with Wachsberg through staff at his company but did not receive a reply.
Despite the assertion that Ford and Wachsberg discussed health care and not business, New Democrat MPP Taras Natyshak is questioning why the premier granted a meeting to someone who was a significant client of his company.
“Their story doesn’t add up,” said Natyshak in a phone interview Monday.
“There’s definitely something fishy there,” he said. “This is a pattern … in terms of doing special favours for people that are connected either to [Ford] or his inner circle and it reeks of inappropriate behaviour and inappropriate access to the premier’s office.”
Natyshak said people should be concerned about the meeting because Ford should not be granting special access to his office to a former client and must clearly separate his private business from his role as the premier.
In his financial disclosure with Ontario’s integrity commissioner last year, Ford declared he is the sole owner of Deco Labels & Tags. After being elected, Ford put Deco in an arms-length trust to comply with the province’s ethics laws for cabinet ministers, which prohibit them from managing a business while in office.
“If his business holdings are truly in a blind trust, he should have no idea who currently does business with Deco Labels and who doesn’t,” said Natyshak.
The province’s ethics law does not specifically prohibit MPPs or cabinet ministers from meeting with clients or former clients of businesses they own.
Ford’s calendar shows he had about 30 official meetings in April and May with people who are not provincial government or legislative staff. This included meetings with the president of Israel, the Mexican secretary of the economy, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada and the premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.
Meetings with Bruce Flatt, the CEO of Brookfield Asset Management, David Feldberg, the CEO of Teknion Corp. and Clare Copeland, former chair of Toronto Hydro were all described as “to discuss our government’s open for business agenda.”
Other than his meeting with Wachsberg, only three of Ford’s non-staff meetings in April and May were specifically health-care focused: with his special adviser Rueben Devlin on April 18, with Cystic Fibrosis Canada on May 13, and with Collingwood General and Marine Hospital on May 27.
Toronto’s integrity commissioner Valerie Jepsen ruled in 2016 that Ford’s dealings with Apollo during his term as a city councillor violated council’s code of conduct.
Although Ford’s ward did not encompass the location of Apollo’s facility, Jepsen found that the then-councillor provided “persistent advocacy” at Toronto City Hall for the company.
The city’s integrity commissioner ruled that Ford improperly used his influence as a councillor to make inquiries and arrange meetings with city staff for Apollo. She found that Ford also broke the rules by accepting tickets to the Rogers Cup tennis tournament from the company’s CEO and co-owner, Charles Wachsberg.
An investigation by the Globe and Mail found that Ford arranged meetings in 2011 for Apollo with city manager Joe Pennachetti about giving the company a break on its property taxes but did not reveal Deco’s business relationship with the firm.
Citing sources in the label manufacturing industry, the Globe reported that Apollo shifted a minimum of $1 million a year of its business to Deco in 2011.
Apollo describes itself as “the largest private label and control label personal care manufacturer in Canada.” Information on its website says it has 500 employees at its Toronto manufacturing facility, located near Keele and Finch in the riding of York Centre.