LORINC: Strange times in #FordCourt

When you peel away all the political spinning, the legal wrangling and the sheer spectacle of what transpired in Courtroom 6-1 at 361 University Avenue, it is difficult to overlook the fact that Rob Ford, chief magistrate of Canada’s largest city, came across yesterday as a very lonely man, in it way over his head.

Shortly before 10 a.m., he entered and sat by himself at a long table on the respondent side of the cavernous courtroom. No one spoke to him, and he stared forward with that sullen, slightly bewildered look that so often clouds his face. He didn’t look back at the spectators. Just before the proceedings began, his chief of staff Mark Towhey, who spent the day in court, came up to him, whispered something in his left ear and patted Ford’s shoulder lightly before taking his seat.

The mayor spent the rest of the day on the witness stand, seemingly adrift in a miasma of legislative language, his memory constantly cloudy and his apparent understanding of key policy concepts impaired — it must be said — beyond belief. There were moments when he seemed to lose the train of Clayton Ruby’s questions, and others times when the abstraction of the cross-examination defeated him.

He sort of stuck to his script, repeating over and over again his strange and non-sensical definition of a conflict of interest: “For twelve years, I’ve always considered a conflict when the city benefits and the councillor benefits…”

You figure it out. My 13-year-old knows the definition and that ain’t it.

Ruby closed the day by hacking away at this odd mantra, showing, at one point, a video from a 2010 council session when Ford gamely declared a conflict because the item on the agenda was about him, i.e., one of the many integrity commissioner reports that found him in breach of council’s code of conduct.

By this point, Ruby was going hard at Ford, raising his voice and telling the judge that his intention was to show a pattern of deceit and lying.

I must say I saw something slightly different: a pattern of almost pathological inattentiveness to the more nuanced details of the job of representing the interests of public. He admitted he didn’t read the councillor handbooks; didn’t bother going to councillor orientation sessions (his father, Doug Sr., he explained, had been an MPP, therefore he, Rob, knew what it meant to serve on a municipal council); didn’t bother informing himself of the legal framework of the position; didn’t seek to understand what circumstances would prompt the city’s legal staff to remind him, unbidden, to declare conflicts. So many questions left unasked.

Indeed, on the stand, as in the cross-examination conducted in the summer, he came across profoundly, even tragically, incurious, and more than a little passive.

“I still to this day don’t understand why I would have to pay [the $3,150] personally,” Ford said plaintively at one point, his voice soft and gravelly. “I don’t touch the money. Why would I have to pay it out personally?”

I believe him when he says he doesn’t quite get it.

Ford, in the end, will likely keep his job, but I feel confident the ruling will include some harsh words from the judge.

Implicated or not, the failing here is clearly of a different order and significance than council’s last major conflict of interest melodrama — the MFP lobbying scandal which, in a somewhat ironic twist, begat the code of conduct and the integrity commissioner policies that continue to trip up the mayor.

This story, obviously, isn’t about large-scale corruption. Nor is it about partisanship. Yes, the applicants in both this case and the compliance audit challenge to Ford’s election finances are on the left. But his carelessness makes life difficult for those on the right. What’s more, his indifference to the rulebook is quite unique. Conservative councillors like Doug Holyday and Michael Del Grande don’t get themselves into these kinds of tangles because they mostly respect the core concepts, chief among them the importance of keeping clear delineations between personal interests and their positions on council.

For Ford, it’s all blurry lines. It struck me during the lunch break that he may well think of his approach to soliciting donations from lobbyists and developers (Woodbine Entertainment, Co-op Taxi, casino lobbyist Paul Sutherland) in the way a businessperson might think of asking his suppliers to donate to a favorite charity.

“Why don’t you register for the Acme Golf Tournament? It’s just $500, and you’ll get a tax receipt. And while we’re on the green, maybe we can talk about next year’s orders…” Businesspeople take clients to hockey games and out for drinks all the time, and there’s always some expectation of a “consideration,” as the Victorians might say, in return. Yet if the shareholders don’t mind, who’s worse for the wear?

But politics and government don’t and can’t work that way. So from 40,000 feet, one could come away from this hearing and ask, Should councillors be allowed to solicit donations from anyone, for any cause at all? After all, they may be well- intentioned (as I believe Ford mainly is). But has the gesture created a transactional dynamic that potentially muddies the waters? In some cases, it surely does.

Yet unlike the MFP situation, there’s no elegant policy reform to what ails this mayor. He is who he is. And right now, he’s all by himself in Courtroom 6-1, standing knee deep in a mess of his own making.

23 comments

  1. yuo’ve nailed it with your Acme Golf example. Ford has always referred to himself as a “businessman” and that’s how business works. He’s never grasped that he is a politician and the rules are different.

  2. This is not a rhetorical question: Why can’t politics and government work like the Acme Golf example? As a “shareholder” (read: taxpayer) in Toronto so far this “deal” has been all net gain – more kids play football – and no loss. What quid pro quo could Woodbine racetrack (or whomever the contributors have been) possibly ask for at this point especially given how much light and heat this story has attracted that would result in a net loss for the city?

  3. Please keep in mind that in many industries – I’m thinking pharmaceuticals in particular – those Acme Golf quid pro quos have become not only contrary to most companies’ own codes of ethics, but also outright illegal. Taking doctors who run your drugs’ clinical trials to Leaf games is considered a highly suspicious activity, for example, and if you insist on doing it and don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be inviting these people on outings, well, you won’t last very long in the industry. This whole episode even leaves businesspeople shaking their heads at just how incompetent Ford has been.

  4. There is no parallel between taking doctors participating in clinical trials to hockey games and what Mr Ford is accused of. This is about a kids charity not big pharma profits. Further Dalton McGuinty’s decision to remove slot machines from race tracks likely means that Woodbine will be shut down by next year meaning that there may be no favour to repay in this case…

  5. Oh Adam, don’t be so dense. Anyone approached by a politician for a well-meaning charity could feel that to stay on their good side for some current or future opportunity that they need to donate. The charity is not the point, the relationship to the politician is. It’s pretty obvious while these rules exist.

    I know you’re grasping at straws here to make this seem like a witchhunt organized by the left, but seriously, could this circus possibly have come about if John Tory or another conservative had been elected Mayor? Of course not.

    This is all about Rob Ford and his child-like personality/skill set. The trial is a handy little summation of his inability to perform the role of Mayor.

  6. Ford should lose his job. At this point it’s likely the only consequence he’ll bother to take an interest in. He’s shown he can’t be bothered to read a handbook or listen to legal advice when he personally disagrees with it. It’ll likely be a good thing for everyone concerned. Ford can spend more time doing the things he loves and we can go back to having a city that’s run by a politician with some competence (regardless of their political allegiance).

  7. This whole mess is caused by Rob Ford’s failure to pay attention to detail, i.e. sloppiness. If he had used personal letterhead instead of city letterhead then he might not have run afoul of the integrity commissioner. If during the last city council vote on the issue he had made the same speech but as a deputant not as a member of the council then he might have gotten the same result in a council vote. At that time he could have said that he will not benefit from the results, that what will happen is the next batch of funds raised will end up repaying the money returned rather than buying more equipment Of course, it would pobably be a lot easier for him to make these point if wasn’t called “The Rob Ford Football Foundation” but rather “The Don Bosco Football Foundation” or “The Toronto High School Football Foundation” or some other moniker. (There is some benefit to Rob Ford in terms of publicity. )

  8. “There is no parallel between taking doctors participating in clinical trials to hockey games and what Mr Ford is accused of…” 

    Maybe I’m missing something, or just overly cynical, but I see a clear parallel. Woodbine Race Track and the Taxi company have interests that could certainly be affected by the City of Toronto.  

    As Mayor, Ford not only has to keep his nose clean by avoiding any possible favouritism, but he has to maintain the APPEARANCE of impartiality.  As a politician he must set a higher standard for himself than he did as a businessman.  I don’t think he (or Adam), get that.  

  9. It strikes me that Ford gets a tremendous amount of political capital out of his football foundation, despite the fact that it has raised and given away a piddling amount of money. Less than $40,000 in six years is pretty pathetic, considering that he claims to be a well-connected businessman who hits up everyone he meets for donations.

  10. There is no question that Ford’s lack of judgment has been a factor in this episode getting to where it has. But it’s also gotten this far because of the lack of judgment shown by his adversaries who have pursued it into the courts. Given the amount involved, and the purposes it was allegedly intended for, and the many more serious examples of municipal government malfeasance that seem to be routinely ignored, the pursuit of these charges will increasingly be seen as petulant and ultra vindictive by the public at large (including those who don’t like him).

    No matter how much the media may be cheering them on, this is not going to enhance the political capital of those who have turned to the courts. Yes, there will be a core of people who will be focusing on the technicalities of this case… but for the vast majority, the memory that is likely to stick is that he was taken to court for soliciting funds for his football foundation and that perhaps Toronto’s conflict of interest process is a farce. Yes, Ford has gotten a tremendous amount of political capital from this foundation… and there’s a strong likelihood he is going to get a lot more political capital from this case as it drags on. I bet it is a safe bet that most of the people posting here don’t really relish the fact that Ford is mayor. There’s an old saying that desire often clouds one’s judgment. I think that has definitely happened with those who have pursued this into the courts and on many people commenting about it.

  11. Hi SAMG,

    “The many more serious examples of municipal government malfeasance that seem to be routinely ignored” is quite a claim. Can you name one? And if it is indeed an example of malfeasance, can you explain why you haven’t perceived it?

    It seems to me that there are plenty of lawyers ready to take up the cause of exposing municipal malfeasance considering the amount of press coverage this rather piddling example has unearthed. So it wouldn’t cost you much.

    So, do go on… I’m curious: what’s an actual example of municipal government malfeasance in Toronto that’s being ignored?

    R.

  12. @ Richard

    The payouts to Heaps and Mammoliti come to mind, much more money at stake than in the Ford case, council clearly broke the law and if it weren’t for the heroic efforts of the Toronto party the whole mess would have been swept under the carpet by now. While the media did cover the issue it was much less so than the current focus on Ford. 

    I would also argue that the court ruling against Adam Giambrone for lying about canvassing the neighborhood over the Lansdowne realignment deserved far more media coverage than it got. 

    Also the $41 million dollar loss at TCHC from funds earmarked for repairs due to speculation in the stock market should have been investigated and deserved more coverage in the media. 

    @ Peter maybe you are comfortable denying a kids charity cash over “appearances”, but I am not.

  13. “You figure it out. My 13-year-old knows the definition and that ain’t it.”

    Granted, your 13-year-old has the privilege/unfair advantage of your parentage. (But yes, I get your point.)

  14. @ Richard: Don’t you read Sue’s columns?

    And yes, that was a joke. :D

    To the greater issue, the suing your political opponent for anything you can imagine is hardly new ground for this city and it is petulant and I tend to agree that it has blowback, although the Beradinettis seem to be doing okay.

    Still, if a lefty councillor was soliciting donations from union leadership for his or her personal cycling or parks infrastructure charity (if such a thing is possible), got caught, was ordered to pay back the money, and then stood up in council and convinced them to overturn the integrity commissioner’s ruling, the councillor in question would be publicly eviscerated, and rightfully so. And there’s no doubt there’s be a conservative something or other around to bring a suit and put that person in the same jackpot Mr. Ford finds himself now.

    I don’t think anything Rob was doing was intentionally corrupt (not that it wasn’t an intentional act, but he wasn’t doing it to trade favours), but you cannot ask for money from people while doing public business with them. The triviality of his offense is why the repercussion was a letter from the integrity commissioner telling him to pay it back and not a trial the first six times around.

    The only reason we’re still here is ’cause he was too stubborn to take his slap on the wrist for his political corruption. Again, it’s tiny non-harmful political corruption, but that’s still what it is and would’ve cost him a total of 3k (more than worth it for the political capital it brought him and he didn’t even have to campaign for the funds to pay for it. You’d think it’d be right up his alley, making him pay it out of campaign contributions would’ve been a bigger pain in the butt), but he decided he was the mayor and he called the shots and now he’s eating it.

    I don’t want to see anyone lose elected office for something so stupid, even a mayor I can’t stand, but he behaved poorly and thought he could just sidestep his incredibly minor punishment (even he’s admitting now that it’s an insignificant amount of money for him).

    All that being said, he’ll skate. Even if the ruling goes against he’ll appeal and someone will find a way to tie it up in the courts until at least the deadline for a separate election. They’ll find a way to get this finalized after March 2014 one way or the other. There won’t be anyone of political significance trying to martyr him with this, so unless he wants another election, he’ll be allowed to delay tactic any unfavourable ruling until 2014. I guess I shouldn’t say no one, ’cause the NDP can get pretty petty when it wants to, even if it will spite their own face, but I’d assume cooler heads will prevail.

    Anyway, I’ve written something like this twice already and deleted it, ’cause I’m pretty sure I’m full of shit, but I keep coming back to take another swing, so I’m gonna post this and get it out of my system.

  15. In my office we are required to complete privacy, anti-fraud, conflict of interest training, AND TESTING. It’s clear from this that the city needs to implement the testing part, since it’s a risk to the city to have officials that are not aware of their responsibilities (in this case the mayor!) what else is he unaware of or “not read about”.

    The current council should require that all future councilors pass such basic tests before they are allowed to take their office. In fact the Ontario government should force this on all municipal government officials (and their staff). This would remove the question of if the individual understood the law or received the training.

  16. Peter maybe you are comfortable denying a kids charity cash over “appearances”, but I am not.

    Turn down the drama please. No one is denying cash to the football foundation. The trial is about violations of the code of conduct. If Rob Ford would just use his own stationary, and not link his request for donations quite so tightly with his political office, everything would be hunky dory.

    Seriously, this is *not* about revoking or blocking dollars for kids football. That’s a patently false idea, so do not spread it. Thanks.

  17. This entire lawsuit arose because Ford rose, spoke to and voted on a motion requiring him to repay donations to a kids football charity. Seriously this *is* about revoking or blocking dollars to a kids charity, there is zero evidence that Ford, Woodbine or any other donor received a direct benefit from this cash. The fact that Ford used city stationary is a red herring used by Ruby et al to make it seem as if something untoward happened when it did not.

  18. @ Shawn @ Iskyscraper

    1. People donate to charities for all sorts of reasons and anyone that would donate to a politician’s charity that had previously recused himself twenty eight times based on conflicts of interest in the hopes of receiving some nebulous future favour seems to be making an error of judgement as it were.

    2. I have no trouble imagining another mayor making this same mistake: look no further than David Miller. While it has never be phrased as such making illegal payments to fellow councilors (the reimbursement of legal costs for compliance audits)  is the ultimate conflict of interest. Think about it: if councilors can make payments to their colleagues on grounds not prescribed in the Act what is to prevent council from going “in camera” and helping each other with any manner of personal cost? If memory serves the former mayor even committed the same “sin” that Ford is accused of – substituting his personal judgement for the law – arguing that the province should amend the law to allow municipal council to reimburse councilors for the cost of compliance audits – even though that was not the law on the books at the time – but because the former mayor is a lawyer and a Harvard grad everyone gave him a pass. I would also argue that taking all of your fellow councilors out to an $11,000 “retirement party” and billing it back to the city is far more of a conflict of interest than anything Ford has done or will do.

    3. Ford accomplished all of his campaign promises in less than a term with a completely hostile council and stared down CUPE 416 to boot. I’ll take this “incapable” mayor over slick talking thieves any day…

  19. I will address iSkyscraper’s point.

    It is not against any rule, for the Mayor or any other politician to solicit for donations on behalf of charities. As long as the they do not benefit themselves (no directors fees, etc.). In light of this, it is inconceivable that anyone whom donated to the charity was unaware of Rob Ford’s position as Mayor. If he had made the request verbally, or on different letterhead, then there would be no conflict. Lastly, and in your position I am sure you are aware, developers contribute to campaign fundraiser requests, to stay on a councillors good side for some current or future opportunity. This, despite the obvious direct benefit, is not illegal.

  20. >This entire lawsuit arose because Ford rose, spoke to and voted on a motion requiring him to repay donations to a kids football charity.

    http://torontoist.com/2012/09/why-is-mayor-rob-ford-in-court/

    It’s actually a small and incidental part of the suit. The allegations are broadly two-fold. The first is whether rising and speaking (and voting) against himself having to repay this amount represents a conflict of interest. The second is Ford’s continued refusal to abide by the code of conduct for councillors (see above link again).

    >Seriously this *is* about revoking or blocking dollars to a kids charity, there is zero evidence that Ford, Woodbine or any other donor received a direct benefit from this cash.

    You seem too well informed to seriously believe that statement. As Ford’s own testimony has shown, the money has already been spent. No kids were harmed during the proceedings. The foundation and it’s charitable work will continue. If you feel so strongly about their cause, consider donating.

    >The fact that Ford used city stationary is a red herring used by Ruby et al to make it seem as if something untoward happened when it did not.

    That’s your perception, and it seems unshakable. I don’t agree, and it will take more than just your conviciton to convince me. From the above link: “The code of conduct forbids politicians The code of conduct forbids politicians from accepting gifts from lobbyists and their clients; from using political influence for private gain; and from using City resources for non-City business.” The stationary is just one aspect of this case. Worse in my eyes is Ford’s continued contempt of the integrity commissioner’s findings. If he felt that she was wrong, he should have sought to appeal rather than ignore her. Goverance doesn’t work like that. Municipal officials have to be held to a higher standard of conduct and transparency, and Ford does not seem inclined to agree or participate. Let’s see what the judge says.

  21. @Richard…am wondering how deeply you’ve actually followed Toronto and GTA area municipal politics given that you think there are no other examples of potential wrongdoing. Again, I want to stress that I am in no way suggesting that Ford is in the right or that he is a good mayor. I am suggesting that this court case is a result of misjudgement on his part… but also on the part of those using the courts pursuing this matter.

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