Just inside the doors of the east York Civic Centre, three huge recycling bins have been arranged around a decorated Christmas tree. Attached to each receptacle is a sign bearing the logos of the city of Toronto and its emergency medical service. Below the logos, the words "Deputy Mayor Case Ootes Toy Drive" are printed in big capital letters.In seasons past, such a display probably wouldn't have raised many eyebrows. In fact, most people dropping by the building to pay a water bill or apply for a parking permit probably would have applauded their local councillor for doing his bit for a Yuletide charity. So what if he wanted to attach his name to the cause?
Alas, in previous years, the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry wasn't being conducted in the old borough council chamber just a few feet away from the glittering evergreen. And the public wasn't getting an earful on an almost daily basis about how municipal politicians can take advantage of charitable causes to spread their influence and create a network of donors who'll eagerly bankroll their election campaigns.
Indeed, Mayor Mel Lastman's relationships with corporations that have supported both his chief magisterial ambitions and his favourite charities over the years have become central to Justice Denise Bellamy's judicial probe. The inquiry may have been ordered to shed light on how the city's $43-million computer leasing contract with MFP Financial Services of Mississauga ended up costing taxpayers more than $100 million without council knowing anything about it, but it's illuminating a lot of other things as well.
Not a day seems to pass without both lawyers and witnesses making some reference to the way MFP insinuated itself into Lastman's realm when it was in competition for the municipal contract that turned out to be more lucrative than almost anyone could have imagined. And charities were the key.
Over the course of several years, the well-connected firm contributed about $65,000 to causes of particular interest to the mayor. Almost half of the total amount was spent to sponsor three consecutive Mel Lastman charity golf tournaments. Another $15,000 went to supporting the Mel and Marilyn Lastman ball for the arts in 1999 -- the year MFP snagged the computer contract. A healthy cheque was also sent to support the mayor's 2000 re-election campaign. And then there was that $6,500 fibreglass moose.
"When you look at that in total, does it cause you any concern about how it looks?" Ron Manes, the inquiry's lead counsel, asked Lastman soon after he took the stand last week.
"I know you have a concern. I don't,' the mayor shot back.
According to His Washup, getting business to chip in for special causes is his way of helping them thrive.
"I want to see charities do better," he said. "I want to see them stop begging and not have to beg and not waste their time begging."
All that altruism dissipated when Linda Rothstein, the lawyer representing the city at the inquiry, raised the same subject during her cross-examination of the mayor.
She asked Lastman if he shared the view that his charitable connections with big business "might create the wrong perception in some quarters."
"It may create the impression that if you want to do business with the city you have to attend these events and you have to contribute $10,000, $5,000, significant amounts," Rothstein suggested.
"It could and it probably did," Lastman responded. But it was all the media's doing.
"They started printing it that way to make it look that way," snarled the mayor, who then added: "I don't like putting on these events. I don't even like going to them."
But they're a necessary evil when it comes to making important contacts that could prove useful later. It's no big secret that many of the 1,200 people who helped Mel and Marilyn raise $1 million for arts in 1999 also attended another gala a year later, where in a single night they plunked more than $1 million into Lastman's 2000 re-election war chest.
A lot of them bought moose, too, at the mayor's urging.
"I made a few phone calls, yeah," Lastman admitted from the witness stand when Manes raised the subject.
One local businessman recently recalled how aggressive Lastman was in making his Moose in the City pitch.
"It was the saddest, most pathetic time," he said. "The mayor was literally cold-calling senior executives all over the city and flogging moose."
It may have been for charity. But more than a few individuals who had business at City Hall back in 2000 complained that the only way they could get Lastman's ear was to write a $6,500 cheque. Or if they really wanted his attention, take the package deal and buy four for $30,000.
It's doubtful there'd be many takers for such an offer today with His Washup's political fortunes in a state of severe decline. But it would appear that the deputy mayor is determined to pick up where his boss left off. And we're not just talking about a toy drive sponsored by the city works and emergency services department.
Ootes's office recently notified the media that he'd be at a well-known home-and-garden centre in East York helping the company sell Christmas trees. A portion of the sales would go to a local charity, advised the news release. It was printed on the deputy mayor's letterhead and prominently displayed the garden centre's corporate logo.
Now we'll just wait to see what kind of a contribution the company makes to Ootes's next election campaign.