Insiders point to former Clarington Mayor as mysterious ‘Mr. X’ in Greenbelt land swap

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Published September 5, 2023 at 9:00 am

John Mutton (left) with Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister David Piccini and Oshawa businessman Harley Guindon at a Piccini campaign event in the spring of 2022

Mr. X, Phoenix Kiss, Fidani-Diker and Amato. They sound like the favourites in the third race at Woodbine but they are three very important – and intriguing – people involved in the Greenbelt land swap, a public relations disaster for the Doug Ford government that has already come at the cost of his Housing Minister and continues to serve up new tidbits of subterfuge and alleged corruption every day.

The first three are the ‘persuaders,’ with promises of golf invites, Raptor tickets and a few tables at a Building & Land Developer’s Association (BILD) meeting in exchange for the ear of the Premier or his Housing Minister, Steve Clark, who resigned Monday from the fallout of the land swap and the damning reports from the Attorney General and the Integrity Commissioner that followed.

The latter is Ryan Amato, Clark’s Chief of Staff from July 2022 until he became the first to take the fall from the land swap fiasco when he resigned his post August 22.

Mr. X, who has been identified as former Clarington Mayor John Mutton, is a former body builder and ju-jitsu practitioner with an intimidating presence who looks like he has never missed a gym day in his life. He also owns Oshawa-based Municipal Solutions, a company specializing in development services with special expertise in the building trades and “deep connections” in government, as well as the nuclear, energy, manufacturing and infrastructure sectors.

Mutton, through his contract with a local developer, stands to earn more than $1 million in development incentives if the land swap is ultimately successful and, perhaps coincidently, purchased a $300,000 Maserati days after meeting with Ford in the fall of 2022.

(It should be noted that section 3.2 of the Lobbyists Registration Act prohibits lobbying when payment is contingent on the degree of success in lobbying.)

He also has a history of violent behaviour – he was charged with domestic assault (the charges were later dismissed) and a social media post from his ex-wife detailing violent rages derailed his 2018 Durham Region Chair campaign. He has declared since then he has “worked hard” to get his life “back on track” and “owns” all his mistakes.

He has also re-married: Ana Condic, having worked with the World Mushroom Museum in Croatia, is a partner in the firm and heads up the company’s Cannabis and psilocybin division.

Phoenix Kiss, AKA ‘The Fixer’

Phoenix Kiss, known as ‘The Fixer’ in his Municipal Solutions bio, is there to get things done, as his super villain name implies. His official photo has him dressed in a three-piece suit, wearing a Masonic ring and clutching a cigar still in its wrapper, giving off a ‘Goodfellas’ mobster vibe.

Nico Fidani-Diker was one of two consultants (Mutton was the other) hired by Peter Tanenbaum, the owner of an 86-acre sliver of land hard by Nash Road and Hwy 418 in Clarington that is the subject of the government’s latest political nightmare.

Fidani-Diker had previously worked for Premier Ford’s brother Rob when the younger Ford served as mayor of Toronto and is a long-time family friend who attended the wedding and the stag and doe for one of the Premier’s daughters during the summer of 2022, an event attended by dozens of lobbyists and politicians that sparked calls of conflict of interest violations.

Fidani-Diker admitted to Ontario Integrity Commissioner David Wake that the Nash Road file was the only project he and Mr. X had worked on together.

Together these three consultants ‘persuade’ government staffers to arrange meetings with cabinet ministers, deliver packages with specs on land they want zoned, re-zoned, or, in the case of the Nash Road site, removed from the Greenbelt.

What they all thought of youthful-looking Amato is open to speculation. What Amato thought of them was a little clearer – they were people he would rather avoid.

Former housing ministry chief of staff Ryan Amato

When asked by Ontario Integrity Commissioner David Wake about his dealings with Mr. X, Amato described the former Mayor as “one of those guys that you just ‘yes them to death’ and then you cancel, or you don’t show up, or you just say no, right?”

“Then they get the message that you really don’t want to spend any time with them and they stop inviting you to stuff.”

But Amato also declared in his interview that when the circumstances were right, he was “happy” to work with Mr. X.

Amato’s strategy of ignoring Mutton in the hopes he would go away failed, however, and the two were seated together at the Ontario Municipal Solutions table at the BILD dinner on September 14, 2022 – two months before the now infamous land swap where Ford and Clark removed 15 parcels of land that were supposed to be permanently protected from development. Thirteen of the 15 land blocks were directly proposed by Amato, with many of those blocks failing to meet established criteria for removal.

John Mutton in his body building days

Amato, after meeting with Mutton, simply ignored those guidelines and in the coming weeks added the properties – including the Nash Road site – to the list. The explosive Auditor General’s report released last month found more than 90 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt (some of which was very recently purchased) was requested by developers and lobbyists who were with Amato at that dinner.

The most valuable parcel of land in the swap was the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, a triangle-shaped property that increased in potential value by more than $6 billion as a result of the deal, with Sylvio De Gasperis – owner of TACC Developments – the main beneficiary.

But the property that had Mutton and Kiss’ attention was the Nash Road site, located near where the Clarington communities of Courtice and Bowmanville meet.

The land also abuts existing residential neighbourhoods on the Courtice (west) side and would likely be up for development at some future point, something Amato acknowledged in his interview with Wake, saying he was “surprised” it was included in the Greenbelt in the first place.

Information on the land parcel was provided to Amato in the form of a GIS shapefile via a lunch meeting between ‘Mr. X’ and Amato’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Kirstin Jensen, though extracting even that bit of information was a laborious process for Wake.

The Nash Road property

Wake asked Amato how he got his hands on the shapefile:

  1. That I don’t recall, maybe Mr. X.

How would you know to reach out to Mr. X?

  1. I don’t know. I think maybe Kirstin. Kirstin got the deck for the Nash Road site.

How do you think she got it?

  1. Well, I am just piecing…like, you are asking me to piece things together in my head. I think there was a meeting that she went to with Mr. X on something else, and I didn’t show up to. And that is really the only track I could say of how this would have come in.

What was that meeting supposed to be about that you didn’t show up to?

Probably Official Plans.

Why do you remember that meeting if you didn’t show up?

  1. Because she yells at me when I don’t show up to stuff I say I am going to show up to.

That lunch took place on September 27, 2023 at Joey Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto and Jensen recalled discussing municipal politics with Mutton, who was never identified as such in Wake’s report.

Shortly after that meeting Amato provided the Greenbelt Project Team five USB keys with information on proposed sites for removal.

Amato insisted to Wake during the interviews he did not accept any favours from Mr. X in the form of sports or concert tickets, explaining he has tickets “regularly available” to him through his family and “does not care about such offers.” He admitted Mr. X did invite him for golf at the exclusive Goodwood Golf Club in Uxbridge but that he didn’t go.

When asked by Wake why he had not facilitated any other deals from the persistent Mr. X, Amato said people ask him for favours “all the time” but he only passes the information on to his boss if the deal makes sense.

Amato told Wake he didn’t think his office had actually done anything for any of Mutton’s clients. “I would have to go back and look, but to the best of my knowledge we haven’t.”

Amato, who admitted he has had dozens of contacts with Mr. X since the Greenbelt land swap was announced, chalked up his poor recollection of his relationship with Mutton as the product of his job.

“If you can do something you can, if you can’t, you can’t, but it doesn’t stop you listening to them, right?”

“You don’t just pull names out of a hat. Like, I am trying to build a million-and-a-half homes, and if Mr. X comes with something viable that makes sense, that the government can stand behind and support, I am happy to work with him.”

Wake noted in his report that Amato’s attempt to downplay his relationship with Mr. X “strains credulity somewhat.”

Amato told Wake it was “possible” he called Mutton November 3 to advise the government would be announcing a public consultation on removing this land from the Greenbelt, but he couldn’t be sure.

Former Housing Minister Steve Clark

Days later the Greenbelt land swap was announced, a deal that benefitted a few select developers in immediate land value increases to the tune of $8.3 billion. Clark resigned as Housing Minister Monday, after Wake’s report found he violated ethics rules when the province opened up parts of the protected Greenbelt to development.

Clark apologized for his role in the Greenbelt fiasco on Thursday and initially stayed on in cabinet with Ford’s backing but then decided to quit so his presence in the Legislature didn’t become a “distraction.”

Other bureaucrats cited by Wake in his report as having some influence on the Nash Road site included a high-ranking planner with the Municipality of Clarington who was in “total support” of the deal and a staffer inside Clark’s Municipal Affair and Housing ministry that was considered a “friendly.”

The story has grown legs since the report was released Wednesday and the more provocative aspects, with Mr. X, Phoenix Kiss and brand new Maseratis at the heart, have been tweeted and re-tweeted dozens of times since and inspired this bon mot from Twitter poster TDot Resident, who has been following the Greenbelt fiasco from the beginning.

“Tomorrow we find out that Therme was illegally lobbying Doug Ford with some mysterious guy named ‘Dr. Z’ and his wife ‘Penelope Python’ who drive around the GTA in an orange Lamborghini with their fixer ‘Arizona Heat.’ Right?”

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner said his office has yet to address a request to investigate whether Amato violated ethics rules governing MPPs and political staffers at Queen’s Park.

As well, the Ontario Lobbyists Registry does not contain a registration filed by Mr. X with respect to the Nash Road site and Wake noted in his report the evidence gathered “raise issues” about possible non-compliance with the Lobbyists Registration Act.

Wake said he will deal with the possible non-compliance separately, in his capacity as Ontario’s Lobbyist Registrar.

Mutton, born and raised in Bowmanville, told several media outlets he was not a lobbyist and had never been contracted to open up any Greenbelt lands for development.

Mutton was the youngest elected Mayor in Clarington’s history when he took over in 2000 at the age of 34. He focused on greater accountability in government and nuclear expansion at the Darlington nuclear station and is credited with pioneering a method to finance new construction or major additions of buildings through the issue of debentures by municipal government, which he used to fund the South Courtice Arena and Recreation Complex in 2001.

He was also part of the failed Canadian bid to bring an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor to Darlington in 2003.

John Mutton with Ontario Premier Doug Ford

 

 

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