Conflict of interest can be a tricky thing at Queen's Park

The news that a prominent columnist and the premier's director of media relations are an item is raising a lot of questions about the nature of relationships in politics
By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 01, 2021
Brian Lilley (left) is a Toronto Sun columnist; Ivana Yelich is Premier Doug Ford's director of media relations. (Twitter)

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Two decades ago last month, Tony Clement was appointed Ontario’s minister of health, just in time to dig his teeth into some big-time, controversial policy issues. Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution was into its sixth year and the government was under attack on all fronts.

Clement wanted an experienced pro as his director of policy — someone he trusted, whose advice he could rely on, and who knew health care like the back of her hand.

He ended up hiring my wife, Francesca Grosso. As a result, Francesca's life — and mine — got complicated.

I raise this from ancient history because it emerged this week that Premier Doug Ford's director of media relations, Ivana Yelich, and Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley are apparently an item. I don't know how long they've been together. As I told one person who emailed me with concerns about this, I don't make it my business to know who's involved with whom.

In my case, Francesca's being married to a journalist who covers provincial affairs — for a television station owned by the provincial government — added a layer of difficulty to her already challenging assignment. It certainly opened me up to some additional questions:

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Could Clement continue to be a guest on TVO shows that I hosted?

If so, could I afford to risk being seen as too easy on him during interviews?

Conversely, would there be a risk that I’d be overly (and unfairly) tough on him just to show I wasn’t playing favourites?

Furthermore, if I were to get a legitimate scoop out of the health ministry, would everyone assume that my wife had fed it to me, thereby endangering her reputation?

As I said, it was complicated.

My wife’s first step was to get an appointment with Ontario’s conflict-of-interest commissioner. I’m not sure she knew the statutory requirements all that well. But she certainly had an inkling that she wouldn’t be able to do her job properly if anyone in the health ministry thought she was sharing confidential information with her husband.

(For the record: she didn't. We both knew that the only way this could work was for her not to share and for me not to ask — and believe me, fulfilling my part of the bargain was a lot harder. I wanted to know what was going on!)

Francesca's meeting with the commissioner started quite ominously. He eyeballed her documentation, and when he saw what her husband did for a living, he looked up at her over his half-glasses and said, “Well, you definitely have a problem here.”

“What can I do about it?” Francesca asked.

“Simple,” the commissioner responded. “You’re going to have to divorce him.”

Fortunately for all concerned (particularly our daughter, who was still two years away from birth), a less dramatic solution was found. The commissioner said she’d done the right thing putting her relationship with me on the record — and that was that.

Clement remained health minister (and Francesca his director of policy) until Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals defeated the Tories in 2003. Together, they tackled big issues, particularly the SARS crisis. They then went their separate ways, and whatever apparent conflict I had with Clement also disappeared.  

Over at TVO, that all meant we had to do things somewhat differently. Our executive producer determined that banning the minister who oversaw the biggest-spending department in the entire government  made no sense. However, whenever Clement was a guest on Studio 2 or Fourth Reading (The Agenda’s predecessors), I consistently acknowledged at the top of every interview that Francesca worked for the minister, “and we put that out there in the interests of full disclosure for our viewers to know.”

If I got any complaints about my interviews with Clement, I can’t recall them today. My sense of it was that people appreciated the “full disclosure” approach, then judged for themselves whether my relationship affected the interviews one way or another.

From my standpoint, I don’t think the relationship had one iota of influence. For starters, I met Clement a decade and a half before I'd met my wife, so to me, whether I interviewed him or any other cabinet minister, it was just another day at the office. In fact, I knew him before he even got into politics.

The fact is, I’ve lived in Ontario pretty much my whole life, covered politics for nearly four decades, and therefore have frequently found myself in apparent conflict with an interviewee or a topic. I have a cousin who’s a member of the NDP caucus at Queen’s Park (Paul Miller, Hamilton East–Stoney Creek). During his teenage years, my eldest son was a member of the federal Liberal party — and he still is. My second-born son works for a senator who was once an NDP cabinet minister. My daughter has knocked on doors during election campaigns for Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and Green candidates. My mother once chaired the board of Atomic Energy of Canada, which was deeply invested in the nuclear-power business. She also chaired the governing council of the University of Toronto. I’m currently finishing up my term as chancellor of Laurentian University, which has garnered some unfortunate headlines of late.

When covering any of these topics or institutions, our executive producer has to decide how significant the conflict is and whether it renders me unsuitable to cover that story.

Miller has been a guest on The Agenda a few times. We acknowledge our family connection off the top and move on. My wife’s business partner is an expert in health care, and he’s been a guest on the program numerous times. I always mention our mutual connection, then we talk.

Sometimes, our management team determines that the conflict is too problematic, and as a result, I don’t do those stories. The Agenda tackled the financial problems at Laurentian, but for that interview, I stood aside, and Nam Kiwanuka hosted. Even though my role at Laurentian is purely ceremonial, and I had no knowledge of any of the financial difficulties behind the scenes, it was determined that my conducting an interview on the subject would be too fraught. I haven't written any columns or tweeted about the situation either.

I don't know who knew what about the Lilley-Yelich relationship or when they knew it. I don't know whether either of them informed their employers about it. I know Lilley didn't mention it during any of his appearances on The Agenda. I also know he's been one of Ford’s toughest questioners when his number comes up during the premier's media briefings.

I know, too, that it's inevitable that people who work in the same field will, on occasion, get into intimate, mutually desirable relationships with each other. We surely can't ban that.

What we must do to maintain the public's trust is try our best to err on the side of too much disclosure rather than not enough.

Only Lilley and Yelich know whether they've adequately followed that advice.

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