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.