Cheol Joon Baek
For anyone but political junkies and the City Hall press corps dressed in their Sunday best, the deliberations that got under way Wednesday, September 5, in courtroom 6-1 at 361 University to determine if Mayor Rob Ford broke conflict of interest rules must have seemed anticlimactic.
All the media hoopla about the possibility of his getting turfed from office for some curious financial dealings involving his charity football foundation raised expectations of high courtroom drama.
But along with the technical arguments led by his legal team, the sight of Ford taking the stand in his own defence in that sorry tie he often wears at stressful moments like these was more pitiable than great political theatre.
The mayor cut a sorry figure, at times barely audible in his responses, making some of us wonder if he'd reached into the medicine cabinet for the Rescue Remedy this morning to take the edge off. The bellicose bully was nowhere to be seen.
Whether that was by design, to win a little sympathy, I'll leave for the judge to decide.
But the narrative of this latest controversy to swirl around the perpetually embattled mayor is more complicated than the one the Fordists have been spinning.
If there was a conflict, they say, it was inadvertent, and all for a good cause anyway - namely, to help disadvantaged kids by buying football equipment.
The big question on everyone's mind: is Rob Ford toast?
It doesn't look good for Rofo. At least not on paper. The case against him, that he contravened the Municipal Conflict Of Interest Act by speaking to and then voting on a matter in council in which he had a financial interest - to wit, donations by lobbyists to his football foundation - is black-and-white.
Check the 147-page transcript of the deposition he gave a few months back in preparation for this trial. It's so full of BS that a casual observer might think the mayor had Peter Gabriel playing on a loop in his head. ("I don't remember, I don't recall, I got no memory of anything at all.")
Rob doesn't have a legal leg to stand on. There was a direct financial interest involved: the $3,150 in donations to his foundation he was ordered to repay by the city's integrity commissioner, but refused to come up with.
But it would take a very brave judge to impose the maximum penalty prescribed by law: removal from office and being barred from running for office for seven years. On the latter, the judge has discretion. So the mayor could conceivably get the axe but be allowed to run again in a by-election.
Lost in translation
Just how egregious was Ford's transgression? The official line that the conflict charges against the mayor are politically motivated, an evil plot concocted by the left to take the man of the people away from his people, has coloured most of the mainstream media coverage. The Sun ran a story Monday, September 3, suggesting that straws are being drawn and lefty Joe Mihevc is being touted as a possible replacement. News to Citizen Joe.
When Team Ford hasn't been playing the left conspiracy theory angle, the message track has been that the mayor doesn't benefit from donations made by lobbyists to his football foundation, so how could there be a conflict?
But whether the mayor benefited financially is not so clear cut. He definitely gains politically from his foundation, that's for sure, and doesn't that result in a personal advantage? In April, he attended a public presentation of a fat cheque from the foundation to buy football equipment for the kids at Mother Theresa High School.
Let's look at the facts. The donations in question were - and here's the really iffy issue - made by lobbyists. And not just any lobbyists, but people doing business with the city. The court could view their donations as attempts to curry favour and get Ford to reciprocate by supporting their pet projects at council. Where I come from, that's called a shakedown. Ford doesn't seem to get that, or is simply playing dumb on the point. He has his own definition of what constitutes a conflict, and that is anything that benefits the city. Yup. You're reading that right.
Was the mayor selling votes?
Ford apparently also solicited funds for his foundation from citizens vying for appointments to city agencies, boards and commissions. This is where the issue of his using city letterhead to cop said donations, which on its face might seem only a technical breach of the rules, becomes very problematic. His missives could be construed as intimidation - as in "If you don't give, you won't get Ford's vote to sit on this or that board." Those who complained to the integrity commissioner about receiving these letters reported feeling strong-armed.
What's never been fully explained
Why has the entity that administers Ford's foundation, the Toronto Community Foundation, accounted for only $37,294.68 in donations to the charity when the mayor has claimed more than $100,000 in donations on his website?
When asked about that during his deposition, Ford stammered, "That was inaccurate. I was probably saying it would be that much. It could total that much. It could in five or six... the years to come. I could easily fundraise that much money for it."
More to the legal point
How could someone like Ford, who's been in politics for more than a decade, pretend to be so ignorant of conflict rules? There's a handbook. Councillors sign a declaration after they take office that they will "faithfully and impartially" exercise their duties and "disclose any pecuniary interest, direct or indirect, in accordance with the Municipal Conflict Of Interest Act."
It's not a formality. It's a sworn statement, a promise to the public, signed in front of the city clerk. It's the mayor's duty to understand conflict guidelines.
Ford can't argue that he didn't understand the rules.
In the past, he's excused himself from votes, declaring a conflict on some of the most mundane matters, including changes to parking times on the street where the family business in located.
The mayor received six letters from the integrity commissioner ordering him to pay back the money. He ignored every one of them.
Certainly not council's left if Ford gets the boot. The last thing progressive forces want is to go into an election defending what looks like an attempt by the left to hijack the democratic process. Ford has already begun playing the spunky victim card, saying that if he's bounced he'll run again.
As attractive as the prospect of seeing Ford rousted from office may seem, a by-election to replace him would further divide a city whose council is just beginning to assert its authority despite constant distractions by the mayor.
The audit of his campaign expenses, another court date awaiting the mayor, may prove more problematic politically.
But in terms of the conservative brand and those charged with protecting it, i.e., the power brokers behind the scenes with agendas bigger than Ford's re-election, there'll be much to think about. Like whether or not the mayor has become a serious embarrassment and if it's time to back another horse.
The wider public that voted for Ford seems to be taking note, and some of his friends in the usually favourable media, too, have begun to openly address the possibility of an exit, however remote. Former Ford insiders are chatting up a storm behind the scenes that can only mean one thing: more negative publicity is in the offing.
Team Ford seems to be smelling a change in the air. Two years from the next election, the mayor's peeps are already in re-election mode, trotting out the mayor in the company of his family at the Ex and on summer vacation in Edmonton. The polling to identify unfriendly councillors he can topple in 2014 has already begun. But there'll be more storms to weather before then. And by that time there won't be much left of his Teflon coating.