TORONTO – Toronto Mayor Rob Ford faced an Ontario judge Wednesday to defend himself against a conflict of interest allegation that could see him kicked out of office.
The mayor — speaking in a packed Toronto courtroom — said he does not believe he violated any rules when he used his office resources to solicit donations for his private football foundation in 2010, when he was a city councillor.
Ford admitted that two of his staff also helped him stuff the envelopes, but said the donations were not “financially beneficial” to him personally and the city.
“Because again, there was no interest in the city. This was just my personal issue,” the mayor said from the witness box.
The city’s integrity commissioner found these actions violated the conduct code for councillors.
Some of the $3,150 received was from lobbyists who often did business with the city and the commissioner recommended Ford pay back the funds.
Council adopted the commissioner’s findings and sanction in a resolution Ford voted against — but he never made the repayments, despite several reminders from the commissioner.
In February, council took up the matter again at the request of the integrity commissioner, but this time, councillors — including the mayor himself — decided Ford did not have to repay the donations.
Prior to the council decision, Ford gave a passionate speech about his charity, which buys football equipment for at-risk high school students in Toronto.
Ford said that meeting was “confusing” and added that the city solicitor, who governs the proceedings, usually points out when a motion may be a conflict of interest for a councillor. This was not done at this meeting, he said.
Paul Madger, a Toronto resident, launched a lawsuit a month later, alleging Ford violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act by participating in the council decision.
If found guilty of violating the act, Ford could be ousted from office and barred from running for city council for seven years.
However, there’s a chance the mayor could hold on to his seat even if found to be at fault, provided the judge finds that Ford made a mistake or experienced a lapse in judgment.
Lawyer Clayton Ruby, whose client filed the lawsuit, has argued Ford’s conduct was “flagrant and deliberate.”
Trevor Farrow, a legal ethics expert at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, said the conflict-of-interest rules were designed to allow for human mistakes while “setting a fairly high standard to protect an important institution, which is our municipal government structure.”
“It’ll be key what evidence is given at that hearing in terms of what the mayor knew or should have known, in terms of this notion of inadvertence, ignorance or an error in judgment,” he said.
When someone is found to have knowingly breached the spirit and letter of the rules, “the act does not give a lot of discretion to the court in terms of remedies,” Farrow said.
“Will (Ford) lose his seat? I really don’t know … Is it a possibility? Yes, it’s a possibility,” he said.
The hearing is expected to last three days.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012