Rob Ford didn't libel the operator of the Boardwalk Pub during a 2010 Toronto Sun interview, a judge has ruled.
In a decision released Thursday, Ontario Superior Court Justice John Macdonald dismissed the $6-million defamation suit brought against the mayor by George Foulidis.
In a widely publicized and controversial 2010 deal, Foulidis won an untendered 20-year contract to operate a restaurant on city land in Woodbine Beach Park. During an interview with the Toronto Sun editorial board that summer, prior to his election as mayor, Ford suggested "corruption and skullduggery" at closed-door council meetings was behind the deal, which he said "stinks to high heaven."
While Foulidis claimed that Ford's statements had damaged his reputation, Macdonald found that when the suit went to court in November, Brian Shiller, the restaurateur's attorney, failed to prove two key elements his case; that the mayor's statements referred to Foulidis; and that they were defamatory.
During his discussion with the Sun board, Ford never referred to Foulidis by name, speaking instead of "Tuggs," the company behind the Boardwalk Pub. But at trial, Shiller argued that Foulidis was the public face of the company, and so a reasonable person reading the article would conclude that the mayor was referring to his client.
But Ford's attorney, Gavin Tighe, countered that Foulidis could not be seen as the company's "alter ego," in part because provincial records show that his brother, Konstantinos Foulidis, has been registered as the president, secretary, and director of Tuggs Inc. since 1993.
In the 15-page ruling, the judge agreed with Tighe, and accepted Ford's claim that he barely knew who Foulidis was at the time of the Sun interview. It was the Sun who connected his comments about "Tuggs Inc." with the man who would later sue him, Macdonald found.
"Mr. Foulidis has failed to prove his assertion that he is either the face of Tuggs, or its alter ego," Macdonald wrote.
"It was the Sun which linked George Foulidis' name to Mr. Ford's statements, not Mr. Ford, as the reasonable reader would have known from what the Sun said [in the article]."
On the second failed test - whether Ford's statements were defamatory - Maconald found that the mayor covered himself from any liability by saying that although he believed the Boardwalk Pub deal was corrupt, "I can't accuse anyone or I can't pinpoint it." The judge decided these were "strong, limiting expressions" that made clear he was not accusing Foulidis or any other person of a crime.
"[Ford] voiced only a suspicion of corruption which he, immediately and in clear terms, admitted was without factual foundation or insufficient for him to be able to say that anyone had done anything wrong," Macdonald wrote. " In my opinion, he clearly and explicitly prevented any defamatory meaning being perceived in his suspicion of corruption."
Because Foulidis never made the case for libel, Macdonald found it unnecessary to even address Ford's defence argument, which hinged on "fair comment" protections for political speech.
On top of categorically rejecting Foulidis's legal arguments, the judge also raised questions about the plaintiff's integrity. He noted that on the stand, Foulidis initially denied his participation in a fraudulent real estate deal involving his parents. A court found he was a party to the fraud in 2004, and the case was upheld on appeal a year later.
"I find that the plaintiff attempted to mislead this court about his past fraudulent conduct...," the judge wrote. "I am left with serious doubt about the credibility and reliability of his testimony, particularly where it is in conflict with other credible evidence, but also where it is not confirmed or supported by other evidence."
The judge also estimated that the damages Ford would have been found liable for if he had been convicted were only $20,000 - much lower than the $6 million Foulidis was claiming.
Foulidis now has the option to appeal the judge's decision.
Neither his lawyer nor Ford's office immediately returned a request for comment.
Foulidis and Ford can resolve their costs related to the case outside of court, but if they fail to reach an agreement, the court will issue another ruling on how the costs will be divided.
Plaintiffs who lose libel cases usually pay at least a portion of the defendant's legal bills.
Also on Thursday, Macdonald dismissed a separate but related libel case Foulidis brought against Bruce Baker, a failed city council candidate.