Ross Romano is ‘Home 2 Stay’
Fact-Checking the ‘Gutter Politics’ on the Local Campaign Trail
I launched this newsletter last October with a story about Sault MPP Ross Romano’s previous presence in Sudbury, a story later echoed by another outlet. At the time, Romano’s constituency office provided me with a vague and less than honest response when asked about his primary residence while in office.
The following month, Romano spoke publicly about the issue for the first time in an interview with SaultOnline.
That interview answered an important question, but it created another.
Screenshot from SaultOnline YouTube channel (November 20, 2021).
Romano provided an explanation for his travel expense claims that include Sudbury. Specifically, he explained a dizzying travel schedule while cobbling together a semblance of family life as a cabinet minister between three cities. Romano flew out of Sudbury occasionally because driving back to that city would allow him slightly more quality time with his family.
Since my initial story, I’ve been able to access portions of Romano’s cabinet calendar, which explains some of his travel itinerary while he was the Minister of Colleges and Universities (2019-2021).
The travel dates of the calendar mostly corroborate Romano’s explanation for his previous expense claims.
There are several flights from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie and then from Sudbury to Toronto. Travel expense claims are meant to cover the movement between Queen’s Park and an MPP’s ‘residence,’ but let’s assume that all of this is above board. Any reasonable person would want to spend more time with their family, so let’s not dwell on technicalities for the moment.
Essentially, a major discrepancy about Romano’s whereabouts was safely laid to rest.
He was mostly in Toronto, met his family in Sault Ste. Marie on weekends, drove with them to Sudbury, and then flew back to Toronto, which explains why he’d be flying out of Sudbury so often.
There was, however, another potential discrepancy.
Although Romano revealed how and why Sudbury was included in his travel expense claims, he didn’t reveal where he was actually living.
That’s important because it seemed like a contradiction of things he’d said on the public record about the matter.
In 2020, Romano owned two houses in Sault Ste. Marie, his family home on Spring Street and a rental property around the corner on Wellington Street. According to publicly available ownership and property records, the former was sold in October and the latter in November. Romano then moved into a new house that was built close to the airport in February of 2021.
So, the main question after the SaultOnline interview was this: if Romano had a primary residence in Sault Ste. Marie all along, where was he between October of 2020 and February of 2021?
The SaultOnline interview didn’t entertain this detail.
Romano made it seem as though he sold the house on Spring Street and then seamlessly transitioned into the new house. Romano also said that he sold his house over the summer of 2021, but it was actually in the fall of the previous year.
That potential discrepancy has lingered since the SaultOnline interview.
Of course, it was bound to happen: Romano’s previous presence in Sudbury has become a dramatic part of the provincial campaign trail, animating attacks and speculation from the NDP about his whereabouts while in office and a decisive response.
A recent SooToday story includes a new interview with Romano about the matter, in which he forcefully rebuts the NDP’s claims by describing them as ‘gutter politics.’
Like the SaultOnline interview that preceded it, it answered an important question but created another.
At long last, Romano revealed where he’d been living in Sault Ste. Marie during the transition period mentioned earlier: he kept an apartment in the rental property on Wellington Street, an arrangement made during its sale.
For good measure, the SooToday story even includes a picture of the two houses side by side.
Photo credit: David Helwig of SooToday (May 28, 2022).
This wasn’t mentioned until now – even when asked specifically about his whereabouts by several different people (myself included) – but it’s another discrepancy laid to rest.
Additionally, Romano directly responded to the NDP highlighting his travel expense claim from June of 2020 that includes ‘Sudbury’ as a departure and/or destination. He explains, along similar lines, that he would sometimes fly out of Sudbury so that he could spend more time with his family.
But that schedule is how he described his pre-pandemic travel itinerary.
June of 2020 was a state of emergency and almost everybody was working from home if they could, including politicians. Romano doesn’t specifically explain why he would have travel expense claims involving Sudbury during that time, including whether Sudbury was a departure, destination, or both.
In sum, the factual record on this point still hasn’t been settled.
Before doing some necessary fact-checking, let’s get some important details about this story out of the way.
First, no reasonable person would dispute that Romano and his family were in an extremely difficult and stressful position. Politics and families don’t jive in the best of times, so it’s safe to assume that a 300-kilometer distance and the pandemic made that infinitely worse. It must have been terrible and we should all be happy that a family has been reunited in our hometown.
Second, there’s absolutely no way to dispute that Romano and his family presently live in Sault Ste. Marie. This story is about his previous whereabouts while in office, his public statements on the matter, and whether or not those two things align.
Screenshot from Ontario NDP Media Twitter account (May 25, 2022).
To be very clear: nobody should attack Romano’s family, spread unfounded rumours, or deliberately lie, even if there are perceptions that Romano has been less than honest in the past or unresponsive to the community.
In particular, if those campaigning against Romano are consciously and explicitly distorting the factual record, they ought to be corrected and rebuked.
Nonetheless, the travel expense claim from June of 2020 that was highlighted by the NDP hasn’t been adequately addressed yet.
The core issue, in my opinion, is one of public integrity.
It shouldn’t take three separate news organizations asking you similar questions to get a straight answer.
It also shouldn’t take three separate news organizations to properly fact-check a story.
At least part of the reason the public record is still elusive is the fact that Romano either hasn’t been asked precise enough questions or hasn’t provided a substantive enough response.
There are three key pieces of data for this story:
Romano’s public statements about his travel itinerary and primary residence.
Romano’s travel expense claims available from the Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario.
Romano’s cabinet calendar (portions of which I’ve received through freedom of information requests).
Using all three of these in combination, it’s possible to do some fact-checking for the travel expense claim in June of 2020.
Let’s start with the first one.
When asked by SaultOnline if Romano has ever lived outside of Sault Ste. Marie, he said this: “No, I’ve had a home in Sault Ste. Marie ever since I bought my first home in Sault Ste. Marie in 2005.”
And he continued: “I’ve always maintained an address in Sault Ste. Marie.”
Referring specifically to the post-pandemic period (i.e. after March of 2020), Romano said that he’d “been in Sault Ste. Marie just about every single day.”
When recently asked by SooToday about where he’d been living between October of 2020 and February of 2021, Romano subsequently disclosed the apartment that he was renting and said this: “I state unequivocally that I have never lived a day of my life in Sudbury.”
Keep in mind that June of 2020 is the period before Romano sold his two houses in Sault Ste. Marie and started renting an apartment.
What can the other two pieces of data tell us?
Romano’s travel expense claims provide some detail, but not nearly enough.
There are two different entries for June of 2020. Oddly, neither of them specifies the actual date of travel. Both expense claims specify a ‘date incurred from’ and a ‘date incurred to’ of June 1st and June 30th (respectively).
One of the claims specifies ‘Sudbury,’ but it’s also unclear if it’s a departure, destination, or both. Either way, these expense claims are meant to facilitate travel between Queen’s Park and an MPP’s ‘residence,’ so it does raise eyebrows.
Romano’s cabinet calendar provides the most detail yet.
June of 2020 is several months into the pandemic and non-essential travel is explicitly discouraged. According to Romano’s calendar, most of his engagements are via Zoom and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario isn’t sitting.
So where is he?
We ought to assume that he’s in his house on Spring Street and working remotely.
But there’s a wrinkle in the paper trail.
When I requested his cabinet calendar for this month, it was released to me with all of the travel itinerary withheld.
This should raise eyebrows, too, because several of the other months of Romano’s calendar that were released to me clearly indicate travel from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie and from Sudbury to Toronto, corroborating the weekly schedule that Romano earlier conveyed to both SaultOnline and SooToday.
It’s relatively clear that he was in Sault Ste. Marie, because there are entries in his calendar that mention his constituency office and Spring Street house, among a flurry of Zoom meetings that month.
Nonetheless, the lack of disclosure related to his travel itinerary sows some doubt about his precise whereabouts during that month.
To give you an example, Romano was in Toronto on Wednesday, June 10th for an important press conference, which would have necessitated travel to and from Toronto.
There’s a calendar entry early that morning. One can reasonably assume it’s travel-related, but it’s withheld.
Same thing with the following morning (June 11).
And these aren’t the only details that were withheld for that month, ones that are potentially travel-related. There are many calendar entries that are withheld throughout that month.
When I went back to confirm how much Romano claimed in travel expenses in total for June of 2020, I noticed that the public disclosure has been slightly amended.
When I downloaded the public disclosure spreadsheet file last year, there were actually three entries. They were as follows, including the amount and city that’s listed: $1322.66 (Toronto), $218.89 (Sudbury), and $379.82 (Sault Ste. Marie).
The latter two are still there, but the first one seems to have vanished without explanation. Sometimes MPPs make honest mistakes with their accounting, claiming expenses as an MPP that are actually the business of cabinet (a separate portfolio). In any case, there’s still an entry that lists ‘Sudbury’ and there’s nothing in the paper trail to provide sufficient detail for that.
So, what are we to make of all this?
Is it fair to say that Romano “never lived a day of [his] life in Sudbury?”
Given the fact that it’s taken Romano this long to answer questions about his whereabouts while in office, I think some healthy skepticism is warranted.
There’s an easy way to settle the matter: Romano can provide the receipts from his travel expense claims and/or release the unabridged version of his cabinet calendar.
Without the specificity that either of those would provide, it’s not yet possible to lay this final potential discrepancy to rest, even if Romano is ‘home 2 stay.’
In the meantime, I’ll keep searching and let you know what I find.
When asked most recently for comment, Romano’s Director of Communications at Government and Consumer Services, Sebastian Skamski, offered only this: “Minister Romano is proud to represent the great community of Sault Ste. Marie, where he was born, raised, and lives with his family.”