Bernard Weil /getstock
Anonymous calls from pay phones, blocked calls from cellphones, a letter asking for a police investigation: Mayor Rob Ford's testimony in the $6-million libel suit against him, #fordcourt2 as it's been dubbed in the Twitterverse, had all the earmarks of a political thriller. All that was missing was a brown paper envelope full of money.
But when the moment came for Ford to back up his claim that the city's 20-year lease deal with the Boardwalk Café and George Foulidis, also known as the Tuggs deal, was corrupt, Ford could only burble and shrug. He had nuthin' to support his assertion of backroom "skulduggery" made at a Toronto Sun editorial meeting in the heat of the 2010 mayoral election.
Ford could offer no evidence that the fix was in or that votes were bought with money under the table, as he'd suggested to the Sun and CFRB earlier. There was no smoking gun, no scandal akin to the case of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was sentenced to 12 years for trying to sell two Senate seats, which Doug Ford compared the Tuggs deal to at the time.
Under examination by Foulidis's lawyer, Brian Shiller, there was only one conclusion to draw from Ford's testimony: he'd relied on nothing more than rumour and innuendo, tidbits he'd picked up around City Hall like lint on his suit, to conclude that something was sleazy about Foulidis's lease agreement with the city.
In point of fact, so unconcerned was Ford about the Tuggs deal, before he ran for mayor at least, that he didn't bother to vote on the matter on the two occasions it came before council in 2010. (He couldn't remember why). Nor did he vote on the issue when the Audit Committee, of which he was a member, considered a motion asking for a review of the deal by the city auditor.
In the end, Ford was forced to backtrack. It was the process that was corrupt, he said, not the deal itself, a statement Shiller would describe in his closing arguments as "disingenuous." Shiller was being too kind.
Indeed. Ford's rationales sounded a lot like the ones he offered in that conflict of interest business a few months back.
Truth is, Ford saw an opening to make political hay with his corruption allegations and went for it.
Context is important here. At the time he levelled the charge in August 2010, Ford has just taken over as front-runner in the mayoral race. His freak-out was calculated, just what the angry masses wanted to hear from the stop-the-gravy-train mayoral candidate.
He might have gotten away with it; he may still. But now that a missing recording of the Sun meeting has surfaced at the 11th hour - Ford, caught in a lie by audio again? - the prospect of his walking on this latest legal wrangle is more complicated.
Ford's defence team, headed by Gavin Tighe of Gardiner Roberts, the best legal hotshot money can buy these days, argued in his statement of defence that Foulidis's action was a pre-emptive strike, a so-called SLAPP suit aimed at silencing the mayor and preventing him from reopening the lease deal. Rob Ford, martyr of free speech.
Tighe went further in closing arguments Tuesday, suggesting the Sun story of the ed board meeting in question was a "distortion."
A bold statement, if not self-serving to his client, given the last-minute emergence of yet another piece of evidence: an email version of a press release sent out by Ford after the Sun meet. In it, he states unequivocally what he thought of the Tuggs deal: "I think it was corruption."
For good measure, Tighe dredged up an earlier fraud case involving Foulidis's family to paint Foulidis as the crook the mayor was trying to make him out to be.
But Ford's defence team seemed to be relying more on technical arguments to make its case, asserting that the suit was improperly filed and served upon the mayor, and questioning whether Foulidis can sue for damages when he is not listed as the owner of Tuggs Inc., the corporate entity that signed the lease agreement with the city.
But let's not get sucked into that vortex. Suffice it to say, the minutiae of libel law does not always intersect with the truth.
And the truth about this case is that it's rooted in old political animosities and left-right allegiances that go back to when a guy named Tom Jakobek and then his replacement on council, Millerista Sandra Bussin, ruled the roost.
The antagonists lined up against Foulidis go right back to those bad old days. One of them was sitting in the courtroom at 330 University.
Bruce Baker, a separate defendant in the Foulidis-vs-Ford libel trial, is being sued for writing a letter to council alleging corruption in the Tuggs deal. Baker made a number of real estate deals in the Beach on behalf of Jakobek. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but since we're connecting the dots...
More germane to this proceeding is the fact that he was a candidate for council in the last election. He ran in the Beach against Bussin in 2010 before he dropped out to clear the way for eventual winner Mary-Margaret MacMahon. The interesting part about that: Baker got a call urging him to drop out from Jeff Lyons, the Tory bagman and Lastman crony who, like Jakobek, got caught up in the MFP computer leasing scandal.
Former real estate developer William Malamas, another alleging firsthand knowledge from Foulidis himself that people were paid under the table in the Tuggs deal, made an unannounced appearance at the courthouse Monday afternoon. He stood during a break in the proceedings and introduced himself to the assembled media, offering to spill the beans to any reporter who wanted to talk. Few took him up on his offer, his credibility in the matter being somewhat at issue since it was revealed that he sued Foulidis back in 2009 in an unrelated matter.
And then there's Leroy St. Germain, self-described local activist and publisher of something called Ward 32 News, who sat outside the courthouse Friday with a sign declaring that the media were "missing the point": Ford isn't the culprit; it was "partners in crime" Foulidis and Bussin, read the placard, which was dominated by a photograph depicting Bussin as the anti-Christ, a hammer and sickle on her forehead.
St. Germain orchestrated those protests outside the Boardwalk Café back in 2008 that Ford's lawyer highlighted to help build the narrative that there was indeed something rotten in Denmark as it related to the Tuggs deal. St. Germain isn't an uninterested party. In 2008 he alleged infractions of the Municipal Elections Act against Bussin, who has sued him for alleging that the Boardwalk Café deal was a scam.
To come full circle, Ford's corruption allegations are partly based on that fact that Foulidis's family and employees made donations totalling some $12,000 to Bussin's campaigns over the years. But when presented with a list of those donations in court, the mayor couldn't point out any that struck him as illegal.
But the media seemed to buy the corruption narrative even before Ford came along. About two dozen articles online and in print are cited in Ford's statement of defence to prove that he wasn't the only one who thought the deal "stinks to high heaven."
The Sun and its City Hall columnist, Sue-Ann Levy, an unabashed Ford promoter, led the charge in the vilification of the Tuggs deal.
In Levy's dispatches on the Tuggs deal going back to the 2010 election were references to the restaurant being seedy and dirty, finding feces lying on the floor of one of the toilet stalls and ordering a $15 salad that was "bland and soaked in dressing that tasted like mayonnaise."
At the Sun editorial board meeting that precipitated Ford's corruption freak-out, it was Levy who asked Ford whether he'd undo the Tuggs deal.
Part of Ford's defence in court was to argue that he can't be held responsible for how the Sun packaged the article that followed.
But that was before the audio from the meeting surfaced - courtesy of Rob Granatstein, a former Sun editor who was fired a few months back, reportedly for not being pro-Ford enough.
When Foulidis's lawyers asked six weeks ago for any audio related to the meeting, they were told it had been lost. There was supposed to be video, but that reportedly went missing, too.
Although the Sun was not named in the suit, it seems astonishing that records related to the alleged libel weren't kept. Foulidis's suit was filed a month after the Sun published its story.
I'll leave it to others to decide if the Sun was trying to protect its man. Absent the tape, this could have been a very different case.
On Tuesday, as final arguments were wrapping up, Granatstein tossed the other grenade: the previously mentioned email press release the mayor issued after the Sun ed board, which confirms that the Sun did not distort his view.
Could the sole-sourced restaurant contract have been put out to tender? Perhaps. City staff supported that idea.
But another variable involved in not reopening the deal had to do with fears, voiced at least by Bussin at the time, that the primo piece of waterfront land would be sold to the highest bidder and wind up as big box retail.
The defence and Doug Ford have suggested that Foulidis's suit is politically motivated. Ford friendlies among the media have noted that Shiller, Foulidis's lawyer, also happens to be a legal partner of Clayton Ruby, who's representing Paul Magder in the conflict of interest case against Ford.
But if anyone was motivated by politics, it was Ford. Like the "sleepy conductor" TTC fiasco, another episode he turned to his advantage, Ford's Tuggs declaration was a calculated move in an election full of dirty tricks. Of that there's little doubt, except to those who still believe that anything Ford says deserves to be reported as fact.