It was mid-April, and in Ontario the third wave of COVID-19 was barrelling uncontrolled. With provincial science desk fashions projecting an unprecedented surge with out motion, the Progressive Conservative caucus met to hash out what precisely needs to be finished. On the decision that day have been elected MPPs, the premier, his employees and a few celebration officers. They debated stricter lockdowns, longer closures and simply leaving every thing because it was. However one voice stored coming again to a singular level in accordance with celebration sources. We have to do extra, he argued, as a result of the general public desires extra.
That voice belonged to Nick Kouvalis, a lightning-rod strategist with a status constructed on equal elements controversy and success. Kouvalis has emerged as maybe a very powerful researcher for the PC celebration forward of the election scheduled for subsequent 12 months. He speaks to Premier Doug Ford commonly, in accordance with one supply, and offers his workforce with counsel and coverage recommendation. However up to now 12 months, Kouvalis has picked up one other gig too: Lobbyist.
Since no less than March 2019, the Windsor-based strategist has been providing company shoppers a voice at Queen’s Park. He’s now each advising the federal government for cash — considered one of his corporations, Marketing campaign Help Ltd., obtained $121,000 for “caucus assist companies” from the Ontario authorities in 2019-2020 — whereas additionally searching for to affect authorities coverage on behalf of paying shoppers.
His present roster contains organizations with a make-or-break curiosity in authorities coverage throughout COVID-19, together with the Residential and Civil Development Alliance of Ontario and Cinespace Movie Studios.
He’s lobbying on behalf of a luxurious improvement firm, Eagle Relaxation Estates, making an attempt to get Ministry of Setting approval for a sewage therapy plant close to Barrie, in accordance with info filed with the Ontario Integrity Commissioner’s officer.
He’s a registered lobbyist for Bot Infrastructure, considered one of Ontario’s main freeway building corporations and an organization that depends on provincial authorities contracts for a lot of its enterprise. (Within the final 5 years alone, Bot or its subsidiaries has been paid extra $120 million by the province, in addition to hundreds of thousands extra by consortiums and joint ventures, in accordance with public data.)
Kouvalis says he fastidiously follows all legal guidelines and laws associated to his work always. He’s not the primary, or the one, PC adviser to register as a lobbyist. And the Ontario Integrity Commissioner has by no means publicly dominated that the type of work he’s doing is in any approach a violation of the provincial Lobbying Act.
“I present opinion analysis outcomes with out bias or favour to a mess of organizations,” Kouvalis wrote in an e-mail, “together with your personal, the Toronto Star.” (Kouvalis has supplied polling companies to the Star by Marketing campaign Analysis, an organization he operates with Richard Ciano, his longtime enterprise associate.)
Some advocates, nonetheless, see Kouvalis’s twin position, as adviser and lobbyist, as inherently troubling, even when it’s not barred below the present interpretation of the legislation.
“To be carrying two hats like that’s simply too shut a relationship,” stated Robert MacDermid, an emeritus professor of political science at York College and an skilled on cash, politics and affect in Ontario. “And I believe any member of the general public would see that’s far too shut an association the place you’re making an attempt to help a shopper and you’ve got the ear (of the governing celebration) since you’re a partisan of that celebration.
“I imply, it’s unfair to different lobbyists who don’t have that leg up. And it definitely, to me, doesn’t appear like it’s a relationship that needs to be allowed to face.”
Kouvalis lobbies below the enterprise title Sandfields Company, an organization registered by Ciano in 2019. In accordance with public data it operates out of a house simply north Danforth Avenue in Toronto’s Greektown.
In Might 2019, Kouvalis logged Sandfields’ first shopper, the Grain Farmers of Ontario. Since then, Sandfields has signed up a small clutch of different corporations, together with Synaptive Medical Inc., a surgical robotics firm hoping for provincial analysis and manufacturing grants, and ThoughtStorm Inc., an workplace logistics agency making use of for provincial contracts.
Over that very same stretch, Kouvalis started taking up a way more energetic position as a public opinion researcher and adviser for the PCs, in accordance with a number of celebration sources. “I believe Rod Phillips (the previous finance minister) had loads to do with that,” stated one celebration supply who, like different insiders on this story, was granted anonymity to talk frankly. “Rod and Nick had develop into shut by John Tory. And so Rod introduced Nick in and Nick was capable of simply muscle virtually all the polling.”
To Duff Conacher, the co-founder of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, that represents a transparent moral concern, even when the Integrity Commissioner disagrees. “You possibly can’t be on the within serving to and doing favours for politicians, and likewise lobbying them on the similar time,” he stated. “It’s a transparent battle of curiosity and it places them in a battle of curiosity as properly.”
Premier Ford’s workplace didn’t reply to detailed questions on Kouvalis’s twin position as an adviser to and lobbyist of the federal government.
“Marketing campaign Analysis is retained to offer public opinion polling to PC Caucus Providers,” Ford’s spokesperson, Ivana Yelich, wrote in an e-mail. She didn’t say whether or not the premier believes that position places Kouvalis right into a battle with regard to his work as a lobbyist, nor did she reply questions on whether or not Kouvalis has ever spoken to the premier about his lobbying work.
In a second e-mail, Kouvalis responded “that no affordable individual, together with the Market Analysis Intelligence Affiliation, our skilled requirements group, and the present chair Quito Maggi, with whom I’ve spoken about your current inquiries, views the work that I’ve been retained to do and truly do (not what some folks suppose or say that I do, however the precise work that I do) is in any approach a battle of curiosity.”
He added that there are “many pollsters who additionally register within the open, very transparently, their communications with authorities workplace holders.”
For Kouvalis, that is simply the most recent chapter in a vibrant although undeniably profitable political profession. Kouvalis crafted the technique that made Rob Ford mayor. He helped John Tory win two elections. He was an architect of Christie Clark’s come-from-behind miracle majority in B.C. in 2013.
However Kouvalis additionally has a approach of constructing headlines on his personal. He managed the ill-fated populist marketing campaign that ended Kellie Leitch’s political profession. He give up that job after calling an Ontario professor a “cuck” on-line. In 2017, he was accused of breaking right into a Kelsey’s in Burlington. (These fees have been later dropped; Kouvalis paid a small trespassing effective.)
Within the instant aftermath of final 12 months’s U.S. election, Kouvalis tweeted that it was “fairly apparent Trump gained.” (He didn’t.) After the Capitol riots, he unfold the debunked fantasy that Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists have been concerned within the violence. (They weren’t; Kouvalis retracted the Tweets.)
However irrespective of what number of tempests he causes, Kouvalis retains working and retains profitable.
“He’s simply too sensible for any politician, particularly on the conservative facet of issues, to disregard,” stated John Filion, a Toronto metropolis councillor who disagrees with Kouvalis on most issues however likes him personally. (Filion’s former marketing campaign supervisor, Kate Whittaker, now works with Kouvalis at each Sandfields and Marketing campaign Help, in accordance with LinkedIn and public data.)
Nonetheless, some who know each Ford and Kouvalis are shocked by how carefully the 2 are working collectively now. “Yeah, that’s a bizarre relationship,” stated one other political insider who has identified each since their days at metropolis corridor. “I can’t clarify that one.”
Kouvalis labored for Rob Ford within the 2010 municipal election however towards each Ford brothers in 2014. The 2 clashed at occasions at metropolis corridor and whereas Kouvalis did some work for the PC celebration within the 2017 election, it was low-key and behind the scenes, in accordance with one conservative supply.
Since 2019, nonetheless, Kouvalis has emerged as probably the most essential political voices in Ford’s orbit. “Nick Kouvalis is mainly main all analysis for the PC celebration and for re-election efforts,” stated one other celebration insider. Kouvalis speaks “ceaselessly” to the premier, the supply stated, as does Kory Teneycke, the PC marketing campaign director who, till lately, was additionally a registered lobbyist.
(Teneycke terminated his three remaining lobbying recordsdata on April 26, in accordance with public data. His firm, Rubicon Technique, nonetheless has dozens of energetic entries, however none below Teneycke’s title.)
Kouvalis shares polling and focus group information to assist the PC caucus, and the marketing campaign, gauge the general public temper, in accordance with sources. He presents counsel on probably the most essential choices the federal government makes, together with whether or not and the way strongly to react to surging outbreaks of COVID-19. (One supply described his recommendation as extra advisory than prescriptive; he helps the caucus perceive how the general public will react to numerous choices.)
“I work very carefully every month (throughout your complete pandemic) together with your colleagues on the Toronto Star and extra particularly, on the subject material that each one media and all governments have been concerned about, on the subject of public opinion,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Kouvalis, in different phrases, performs a significant political position for a celebration below unimaginable pressure a 12 months out from a basic election. For Conacher, the truth that he’s lobbying on the similar time is deeply regarding. “You possibly can’t be doing favours for somebody that you simply’re asking favours from, for you and your shoppers,” he stated “It’s simply so basically clear that it’s a battle of curiosity.”
Conacher believes the Integrity Commissioner has the ability below the legal guidelines as written to bar that type of behaviour. The Lobbyists Registration Act prohibits lobbyists from offering recommendation to a public workplace holder in the event that they intend to foyer that very same workplace holder on that very same topic.
Normally, Kouvalis’s lobbying is restricted to slim, particular targets, in accordance the knowledge he supplied to the Integrity Commissioner. Bot, for instance, employed Kouvalis to assist persuade provincial officers that the Freeway 427 extension it helped construct is secure and able to open. (On Thursday, CBC reported that LINK427, which is three way partnership together with Bot, has now sued the province over the identical concern.)
(In a message on LinkedIn, Bot vice-president and basic supervisor Steve Bot wrote that the corporate diligently follows all legal guidelines and expects its staff and contractors to do the identical. “To be very trustworthy, we employed Nick Kouvalis to advise us as a result of we ceaselessly learn his polling and political evaluation within the Toronto Star,” he wrote.)
However the act additionally prohibits lobbyists from “putting a public workplace holder ready of actual or potential battle of curiosity.” And Conacher believes that’s what Kouvalis is doing by offering political recommendation whereas working a lobbying agency. “It’s simply so clearly improper,” he stated.
That stated, the commissioner has, up to now, employed a a lot narrower interpretation of the battle of curiosity guidelines than Conacher does. And based mostly on previous precedent, even Conacher doesn’t imagine the commissioner would prohibit what Kouvalis is doing. “However simply because one thing is authorized, or (the commissioner) has rubber stamped it as authorized, doesn’t imply … it’s moral,” Conacher stated.
Maggi, who’s the president and CEO of Mainstreet Analysis, stated intersections between politics, public affairs and polling are widespread and well-known within the Canadian political business. “On the entire, I don’t see a battle of curiosity,” he stated, including that every particular person case must be judged by itself.
For MacDermid, none of that is new, neither is it confined to the PCs. “There’s an extended custom of this in so some ways, and in so many events,” he stated.
He doesn’t suppose it’s towards the foundations. However that doesn’t imply he believes it’s proper. “You shouldn’t be allowed to work in a paid place for the caucus or the celebration after which even be representing a shopper who’s bidding for a contract with the federal government,” he stated. “That’s all too shut a relationship. I imply, you’re enjoying each side towards the citizenry.”