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Ford’s chief of staff orchestrated pension board shakeup the day before he resigned
July 22, 2019
Robert Benzie

The day before he resigned as Premier Doug Ford’s chief of staff amid a cronyism scandal, Dean French orchestrated the dismissal of the chair of a $60-billion public pension board and appointed three new members, the Star has learned.

On June 20, David Leith, the chair of the Investment Management Corporation of Ontario, was advised in writing that his services would no longer be required even though the respected Bay Street veteran had been expected to be reappointed to the $150,000-a-year post when his term expired June 30.

In what ended up being his penultimate day as Ford’s chief of staff, French decreed that Neil Selfe, Brian Gibson, and Geoffrey Belsher would be joining the board that manages assets on behalf of the Ontario Pension Board and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

Reached by the Star on Friday, French hung up the phone when a reporter identified himself. He did not respond to an email with detailed questions about the moves.

Leith, a former top CIBC executive who has a master’s degree from Cambridge University, declined to comment on Thursday.

The IMCO board now has nine members, but no chair.

Members are paid $50,000 annual retainers plus expenses, as well as an additional $1,500 per meeting attended, and $10,000 if they chair one of the board’s three committees. In 2018, some board members participated in 14 meetings, meaning they earned $71,000 from IMCO.

Sources close to Ford said French had concerns about IMCO president and CEO Bert Clark, and wanted to expand and shake up the board.

Clark did not return messages from the Star. He is the former president of Infrastructure Ontario and the son of Ed Clark, the one-time TD Bank chief executive who later served as Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s privatization guru.

Progressive Conservative insiders, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, said French felt IMCO was not performing as well as it should be and wanted the board to replace Clark, who made $1.78 million last year.

Leith and others who were on the board at the time resisted.

“It was personal. Dean had some issue with Bert Clark and none of us could ever figure out what it was,” a senior Tory insider said Wednesday.

Another government official insisted there is no intention of trying to oust Clark despite the board changes last month.

“That may have been Dean’s plan, but, of course, Dean is no longer here,” said the PC source.

Ford’s press secretary defended the revamp of the IMCO board. “The former board of IMCO was not delivering on its expressed mandate to pool assets,” Ivana Yelich said Friday.

“As a result, the government appointed new directors to get a better understanding of the issues at hand and explore ways to improve the fund’s performance. The time to make changes is at the end of an appointee’s term and prior to the (annual general meeting),” she said.

The new IMCO board members could not be reached for comment. Selfe is the chief executive officer of INFOR Financial Group, Gibson is the chief executive officer of TAVANI Relationship Investors, and Belsher is a lawyer and retired CIBC executive.

Yelich noted Ford is examining the overall appointments process in the wake of French’s sudden departure on the night of June 21.

“The premier has directed his staff to review all pending appointments. Additionally, if the premier finds that people have been appointed for the wrong reason and are not performing to the highest standards, these individuals will be removed from their positions,” she said.

“As an added level of scrutiny, the premier has directed that all public appointments must go to the Treasury Board for approval prior to going to cabinet and the multi-party standing committee.”

The changes at IMCO were announced at 4:15 p.m. on June 20, the same day Ford unveiled a massive cabinet shuffle that dominated the news cycle at Queen’s Park.

The announcement came 90 minutes after the government disclosed that Taylor Shields, a cousin of French’s wife, and Tyler Albrecht, a 26-year-old lacrosse buddy of French’s son, were being awarded six-figure patronage jobs to be Ontario’s agents-general in London, England and New York City.

Early on June 21, Ford revoked the Shields and Albrecht appointments and, under pressure from cabinet ministers furious about the patronage scandal, accepted his chief of staff’s resignation that evening.

Over the past month, the “French connections” affair has led to seven appointees stepping aside.

The most recent casualty was Jeff Coles, an Ontario Power Generation board member, who resigned from his position Thursday night following concerns about his ties to French, QP Briefing revealed Friday.

Sources in the premier’s office admit they do not know if there are other potential landmines out there.

“Dean did a lot of this on his own. The premier had no idea this was going on and when he found out he stepped in,” an official said.

But NDP MPP Taras Natyshak (Essex) said Thursday that it strains credulity to claim Ford was out of the loop and that French acted unilaterally.

“We see his signature on every certificate,” said Natyshak, referring to the cabinet orders in council that the premier often signs.

“He knows exactly who those people are. Either he’s ignorant to the process or he’s complicit,” the New Democrat said.

“I mean, Doug’s driving the bus here. This is his show.”