Analysis

How Doug Ford is handling the Jim Wilson case — the first scandal of his government

The first real scandal of Doug Ford's new government broke with a terse news release that did not come close to revealing the full story, Mike Crawley writes.

Premier's initial statement that Wilson resigned to seek treatment wasn't the whole story

Doug Ford, right, is sworn in as premier of Ontario during a ceremony at Queen's Park on June 29. Cabinet ministers, left to right, Jim Wilson, Vic Fedeli and Christine Elliott look on. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

The first real scandal of Doug Ford's new government broke with a terse news release that did not come close to revealing the full story.

"The Honourable Jim Wilson has resigned as Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation, and Trade, effective immediately," said a statement from Ford's director of media relations, emailed after 6 p.m. last Friday. "Mr. Wilson will also be resigning from the Progressive Conservative caucus to seek treatment for addiction issues."

The statement raised more questions than it answered.

Why would Wilson have to resign from caucus to deal with a health issue? It's understandable that a minister going into rehab would step down from cabinet. But leaving the PC caucus is another matter entirely. Wilson did not quit being an MPP, yet he gave up his political affiliation with a party he'd served for 28 years. It raised the question: why was Ford washing his hands of Wilson?  

And what triggered Wilson's need to seek treatment? Numerous people at high levels in the PC party tell CBC that Wilson has struggled with alcohol for many years. He had appeared at an event with Ford only hours earlier. That suggested some sort of incident must have occurred. But Ford's office refused to say anything more.

'Like they are trying to cover something up' 

This is what Ford did not reveal: Wilson's resignation was triggered when — according to three PC Party sources — a staffer made an allegation against Wilson of sexually inappropriate behaviour. CBC News has not confirmed whether the allegation is true and has been unable to reach Wilson for comment.

Ford's office has still not acknowledged that a complaint was made against Wilson, or that an investigation has begun, even though cabinet minister Lisa MacLeod told reporters this on Monday. She did not provide any details on the nature of the complaint.

David Scott, vice-president of Toronto's Broad Reach Communications, says the Ford government has extended the controversy by withholding information.

The PCs extended the life of the controversy by failing to reveal immediately that an allegation had been made against Wilson, said David Scott, vice-president of Broad Reach Communications, a Toronto firm specializing in public relations and crisis communications.

"That's a big critical piece of information that they chose to not share," Scott said in an interview. "From a communications point of view, they're making the issue worse. They look like they are trying to cover something up and they aren't being very respectful of the voters who put them in power."

Scott described the Ford government's approach to crisis communications as "completely amateurish" for leaving key questions unanswered when announcing Wilson's resignation. He said Wilson's departure from caucus "signalled there's a bigger story here, and that led to a lot more media attention." 

Ford's spokespeople are not providing any more official information about the reasons for Wilson's departure, saying that their initial statement stands.

"Every action we've taken has been to protect the identity of any complainants who might have come forward," said an official in the premier's office, speaking on condition of anonymity.

NDP deputy leader Sara Singh says it's 'time for Mr. Ford to come out of hiding and answer questions' about Wilson. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

But announcing that Wilson was facing an allegation would not require revealing the identity of the complainant, Scott said.

He said the Ford government should have been up front that an allegation has been made, "demonstrating that they're taking appropriate action and demonstrating to the potential victims that they're taking these complaints seriously."

'The public deserves to know'

Governments and organizations are foolish to think they can control the message in a PR crisis by not talking to the media, said Scott.

"When an elected official at a cabinet level has these kinds of allegations made at them, and actions being taken by the government, the public deserves to know," he said. "It's a very important principle and it's one that I hope the government will learn from and not make the same mistake again." 

NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said Ford's initial statement about Wilson "tried to cover up" the allegation against him.

"Mr. Ford didn't tell Ontarians the truth about the departure of his most senior minister, and that's wrong," Singh said in a statement Tuesday. "It's time for Mr. Ford to come out of hiding and answer questions." 

Ford is scheduled to take questions from reporters at an event in Trenton on Wednesday morning. 

Wilson was Ford's most experienced minister, having served in the cabinets of both Mike Harris and Ernie Eves. (CBC)

This is not the first time Ford orchestrated the departure of a PC MPP while failing to reveal the whole story. 

In April, less than a month after Ford won the party leadership, Kitchener–Conestoga MPP Michael Harris announced that he was leaving politics to deal with a degenerative eye disease.

Ford did not contradict Harris for two days. Suddenly, after reporters began asking questions, the party announced that Harris was expelled from the PC caucus.

The party said the reason Harris had been booted was that he had sent text messages of a sexual nature to a former intern. What the party did not say was that the sexting incident had happened several years before and had already been investigated. Harris publicly apologized for his actions, but he was off Ford's slate of candidates. Harris has since been elected to Waterloo region council.

Kathleen Wynne and #MeToo

Kathleen Wynne had her own #MeToo scandals, even before the hashtag was coined. 

In response to questions from CBC News in May 2016, Wynne revealed that sexual harassment allegations had been made against two Liberal MPPs during her time as premier. Initially, Wynne declined to name the MPPs or offer any further details, saying she wanted to protect the identity of the complainants. 

"The people who brought complaints forward were not looking for a public process, they were looking for a confidential process. So I'm not at liberty to talk about those situations," Wynne said at the time.  

Four days later, Wynne revealed that one of the MPPs was Kim Craitor, who resigned as the member for Niagara Falls in 2013. He denied any wrongdoing. Wynne has never identified the other MPP.

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. Follow him on Twitter @CBCQueensPark