'My personal issue,' Toronto mayor claims at conflict hearing
Published Wednesday, September 5, 2012 7:11AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, September 5, 2012 8:20AM EDT
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford defended himself against conflict-of-interest allegations at a public hearing on Wednesday, claiming that the city did not benefit from his solicitation of donations for a personal charity.
"This is just my personal issue. This does not benefit the city in any way,” Ford said in court, according to CTV Toronto’s Natalie Johnson.
Ford was ordered to testify in court on allegations that he violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act by participating in a council debate in which he had a financial interest. If found guilty, Ford could be ousted from office.
The actions in question began in 2010 when Ford, who was then a city councillor, solicited about $3,150 in donations from lobbyists for his personal football foundation, which donates money to allow underprivileged kids to play the sport.
Ford solicited these donations using council letterhead, something that caught the attention of Integrity Commissioner Janet Leiper, who told Ford his actions breached the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct.
Leiper ordered Ford to pay back the money. He ignored that request, and six other requests to do so.
Appearing in front of a packed courtroom on Wednesday, Ford said the solicitation was not connected to his role on city council, and that the city did not benefit from the dealings in any way.
“I never touched the money,” Ford told the court. “I never received a dime from the foundation.”
Ford said the he paid for the letterhead and stamps used to mail donation requests, and only used one city staff member to stuff the envelopes, Johnson reported from court on Wednesday.
The issue came back to council in February when Ford, who was mayor by then, participated in a debate about the money and voted against having to pay it back.
The current lawsuit stems from that February debate and alleges that Ford broke the Conflict of Interest Act when he both participated in and voted in the debate.
The lawsuit has been launched by private citizen Paul Magder, who will be represented by high-profile lawyer Clayton Ruby.
Ford faces tough questions
Speaking in court Wednesday, Ford said that he was not advised by the city’s solicitor that he should not participate in the debate.
Had he known about a potential conflict of interest, he would have declared one, Ford said.
Ford admitted, however, that he did ignore a conflict-of-interest warning from the council speaker during the February debate because he disagreed with her.
He also said he had never read the Conflict of Interest Act, or the councillor handbook. Nor had he attended an information session for new councillors.
Ruby told Ford that it was his responsibility to know if he was in conflict of interest, something Ford said he wasn’t aware of.
Ruby has argued that Ford’s conduct was “flagrant and deliberate.”
In his opening remarks on Wednesday, Ruby said lobbyists donating to a councillor’s personal charity are likely to expect favours in return.
Ford, however, maintained that he thought both he and the city had to be involved to constitute a conflict of interest. Since the matter involved Ford’s personal charity, not city business, he thought he would be OK.
Ford has maintained his innocence and has charged that the entire matter has been politically driven. He told reporters last week that his fate should be left in the hand of the voters, not a court of law.
After hours of defending himself Wednesday, Ford did not speak to reporters waiting outside the courthouse.
He was whisked away into his waiting black Cadillac Escalade.
Mayor’s job could be at risk
CTV legal expert Steven Skurka said Ford's lawyer is expected to use a number of defences, including whether the mayor made an honest error in judgment. He may also argue that $3,000 is too insignificant an amount to constitute a conflict of interest and that Ford didn’t directly benefit from his actions.
If Ford is found to have contravened the act, the law states that court “shall” remove him from office, which most legal experts interpret as an immediate removal.
Should that happen, the city could appoint someone new, or the city could hold a byelection to choose a new mayor.
Should Ford be convicted, the court could allow the mayor to run for his seat immediately, or it could bar him for running for up to seven years.
Ford said, should he lose his job, he will be ready to run for it again as soon as the judge allows.
In the past, Ruby has represented clients such as Donald Marshall Jr., who was found to have been wrongly jailed for murder for 11 years, and the remaining Dionne quintuplets, who were removed from their family and put on display in a commercial theme park in 1934.
Ruby filed a motion to have Ford testify during the trial rather than submitting an affidavit, arguing his credibility was at question.
The case is expected to continue until Friday.
With files from CTV Toronto's Natalie Johnson. Follow her on Twitter at @NatalieCTV