Chaos is swirling around Premier Doug Ford with his right-hand man forcing a departure at Ontario Power Generation, costing taxpayers up to $500,000 in severance, and another top Tory fighting back over his ouster in the wake of two sex scandals.
Three Progressive Conservative sources confirmed to the Star that Ford’s chief of staff, Dean French, phoned OPG chair Bernard Lord to demand that veteran Progressive Conservative political staffer Alykhan Velshi be removed from the Crown utility.
Also Tuesday, former PC caucus head John Sinclair broke his silence to say he did not leave his job last Friday over the way another key Ford adviser, Andrew Kimber, was forced out of the premier’s office for sexually inappropriate texts showing himself in a thong.
“Mr. Sinclair will take all steps necessary to defend his reputation against any defamatory and false statements regarding his character or conduct,” lawyer Scott Hutchison warned in a statement.
“Any innuendo or allegations of wrongdoing on his part are without foundation and should be treated with the profound skepticism they deserve.”
“Once again, it looks like the people of this province are going to be stuck with the bill for one of Premier Ford’s decisions and paying the price for settling his political scores,” said New Democrat MPP John Vanthof (Timiskaming-Cochrane).
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said it’s “certainly fishy” that OPG would hire and then immediately look to fire a senior executive.
“That doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s a waste of taxpayer money,” Schreiner said.
French’s call to Lord, a former Tory premier of New Brunswick, came just as Velshi, who was chief of staff to both ex-PC leader Patrick Brown and interim leader Vic Fedeli, was starting his new job as OPG’s vice-president of corporate affairs and community relations.
It was first reported by the Globe and Mail on Monday.
Velshi, also once a key aide to former Tory prime minister Stephen Harper, is still on the job at the electricity generator, but sources say the terms of his departure are being negotiated and could take effect in the new year.
“It’s going to cost at least $500,000,” said one Conservative insider, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.
Reached by the Star on Tuesday, Velshi referred all inquiries to OPG’s media relations department.
In an impish GIF posted to his Twitter account after the Globe story was published, he depicted a Detroit Red Wings hockey player scoring a goal on his own net.
“We don’t discuss individual employee matters,” Neal Kelly, an OPG spokesman, said in an email.
Ford repeatedly dodged queries about his chief of staff’s actions during the legislature’s daily question period.
“OPG is responsible for doing their own hiring,” the premier insisted.
Energy Minister Greg Rickford echoed that.
“Ontario Power Generation is responsible for their own staffing decisions. OPG is a Crown corporation that is responsible for their own staffing decisions. All staffing decisions at OPG are made by OPG,” said Rickford.
French, who was spotted huddling with Ford outside the Tory caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon, was not available for comment with the premier’s office issuing a terse statement: “Ontario Power Generation is responsible for their own staffing decisions.”
It remains unclear whether the premier was aware his chief of staff was intervening in a personnel matter at OPG, which is highly unusual.
“Why are we going after our own people?” confided one frustrated senior Conservative, noting while post-election shake-ups are not uncommon they are customarily aimed at partisans from rival political parties.
There is no love lost between the Ford camp and Brown, the former PC leader who resigned after allegations of a sex scandal surfaced in January and was elected last month as the mayor of Brampton.
But Velshi is not close to his former boss.
In fact, he was one of four key Brown aides who resigned en masse after CTV News broke the story that felled the then-Tory leader on Jan. 24.
When Fedeli, who is now finance minister, took over as interim Tory leader between Jan. 25 and March 10 when Ford became full-time chief, Velshi was his right-hand man.
Another key Tory during that turbulent period was Sinclair, who appears to be collateral damage in the Kimber scandal.
Conservative sources have said Sinclair, who is well regarded by MPPs and staff for his integrity, left because Ford was irate that Kimber’s troublesome texts to at least five female staffers were not flagged earlier.
“It is manifestly and provably false. As with all sensitive staffing matters, John Sinclair acted with efficiency and professionalism,’ Hutchison said.
Kimber departed the premier’s office Nov. 2 after five women staffers were sent the sexually inappropriate texts. He has since apologized and vowed to get help.
His exit happened the same day the premier’s office was rocked by allegations former economic development minister Jim Wilson engaged in sexual misconduct with a male employee. Ford asked him to resign from cabinet and caucus.
Ford’s office has hired an independent investigator to probe the scandals involving Kimber and Wilson.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie