Former finance minister Rod Phillips may have been tossed from cabinet like yesterday’s news for his ill-advised vacation to St. Barts – and then trying to cover it up on social media – during the holiday COVID lockdown. But questions remain.
Media reports published at the time of the controversy that led to his resignation reveal that Phillips flew to Switzerland in August on what was described as a “personal trip.” That’s what his office told a CBC reporter after she specifically asked if the trip “was a vacation or had an essential purpose.”
So it remains unclear what the exact nature of Phillips’s “personal trip” to Switzerland was if it wasn’t a vacation or on government business.
His former senior communications advisor and press secretary, Emily Hogeveen, is not offering clarification. “I am no longer a spokesperson for Rod Phillips,” she said in response to an email request for comment from NOW. Ditto for Scott Blodgett, a spokesperson for the ministry of finance.
Requests for comment emailed by NOW to Phillips’s constituency office in Ajax and at Queen’s Park also went unanswered, as did a follow-up phone call from NOW.
If he wasn’t in Switzerland on a vacation or government business, was he there on personal business? That would be a no-no.
MPPs and ministers of the Crown must place any business interests they have in a blind trust. That means any business dealings the former minister may have had before he entered politics – and there are plenty on Phillips’ resume – are supposed to be handled by a trustee.
Before he entered politics, Phillips served as president and CEO of Shepell-fgi, “a human resources and technology company” headquartered in Toronto. He was also on the board of directors of the U.S.-based artificial intelligence and software multinational Afiniti International Holdings Inc, which is currently valued at some $1.6 billion. Prior to that, Phillips was head of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and chair of the board of Postmedia, owners of Canada’s largest newspaper chain.
MPPs are required to disclose their sources of income and descriptions of their assets (including investments, properties, ownership of companies and pension entitlements), as well as a record of liabilities (mortgages, lines of credit, unpaid taxes and co-signed loans) with the Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario on an annual basis.
Financial disclosures filed by Phillips in 2019 with the office lists his MPP salary and “investments” as sources of income. The disclosure lists assets in a “management trust” but does not provide specifics. His 2018 filing following his election in June lists salary from “directors fees” and “investment income.” Both filings list no liabilities.
On occasion, an MPP may seek the advice of the Office of the Integrity Commissioner if they think their actions may pose a conflict or breach of the Members’ Integrity Act. A spokesperson for the Integrity Commissioner’s office was unable to shed light on whether that happened in the case of Phillips’s trip to Switzerland.
Did Premier Doug Ford know?
Ford admitted that he knew about Phillips’ trip to St. Barts, but says he only found out about it after Phillips had already gone.
It’s unlikely the premier would not have been aware of Phillips’ trip to Switzerland. Under the normal protocol, the chief of staff to the minister of finance reports to the premier’s office on a daily basis. The deputy minister of finance, Phillips’s second in command, also reports regularly to the secretary of cabinet, the province’s top civil servant.
In one regard, Phillips’ resignation is a convenient turn for Ford. The premier won’t have to answer any more questions about what the former minister may or may not have been up to – or why the premier didn’t know about it. It’s also no secret the former finance minister has his own leadership aspirations.
But it’s also true that for Ford, the loss of Phillips is a significant blow. Phillips had become a moderating voice at the cabinet table. Some Queen’s Park insiders credit him with convincing Ford to adopt a kinder, gentler face during the COVID crisis and turning the premier’s electoral fortunes around.
The budget handed down by Phillips in November, while short on social supports, was also a decided departure from the slash and burn that had marked Ford’s first year in office.
Some Queen’s Park observers suggest it’s only a matter of time before Phillips is back in a significant role in the cabinet – if he hasn’t already become too big a political liability.