Trouble at the ball: An excerpt from Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable

Mark Towhey had a unique view of one of the most notorious moments in the Rob Ford scandal. Here's what happened behind the scenes.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sits at a city council executive committee meeting at City Hall in Toronto, May 28, 2013. Two top aides quit Ford's office on Monday as the embattled leader of Canada's biggest city faces lingering allegations he was caught smoking crack cocaine on video, accusations he has firmly denied. The departures of the mayor's press secretary and deputy press secretary came just days after Ford fired his chief of staff. The mayor confirmed on Monday that both George Christopoulos and Isaac Ransom left of their own accord. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

(Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Pacing up and down in an icy waterfront fog outside the Liberty Grand entertainment complex in Toronto’s west end on the night of Feb. 23, 2013, Mark Towhey was deeply worried. Inside were some 800 people, many of them members of the city’s elite, gathered for the annual Garrison Ball, a fundraiser for wounded vets and military families. Somewhere outside, two hours late, was the city’s mayor, being driven around by Sandro Lisi, “a man I didn’t trust,” Towhey writes, “to an event I desperately didn’t want [Ford] to attend.” The mayor’s chief of staff had never met Lisi, but he didn’t like what he’d heard of him, and Towhey was further unsettled by messages he was getting from a staffer in the car with Ford: The mayor’s children were also present and Ford’s condition was described as “not good.” It was a phrase that accurately described the evening, too. The ball later became one of the most notorious moments of Ford’s mayoralty.

 To find out more, read our Q&A with Mark Towhey on his time with Rob Ford, and our first excerpt from Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable.

I punched in Lisi’s cell number. Lisi answered. I introduced myself and asked him, as calmly as I could, to give the phone to Rob. I heard Lisi fumbling the phone, and then Ford’s voice: “Yeah?” He sounded rough as hell, and we were only one syllable into the conversation. “Hi, boss, how’s it going?” I asked, sounding as neutral as I could. I wanted to see how he sounded, and I wanted to ease him into the idea of turning around. The more it could be his idea, the better.

He launched a volley of words at me, ultra-fast, choppy, largely incoherent. He sounded like a tape recording played back at three times the normal speed. I cut him off.

“Hey, boss, the event here started two hours ago and everyone’s already eating dinner,” I said. “If you come now, it’ll just be awkward. I’ve already made excuses for you, that your plane was delayed in Chicago. They know you’re not coming. You’ve had a long day already; why don’t you head home and take the night off with your kids?”

He wasn’t having it. “I’m okay, brother, I’ll be there,” he said. Not good. Normally, he called me “buddy.” He called everybody “buddy.” That’s how he wanted the world to be, a place where everyone was his pal. When he was drunk or high, I was learning, we all became “brothers.”

I tried again. “Rob, I don’t think you should come. You sound really rough. You’re obviously tired. And there’s no place here for kids, so they’ll be miserable.”

Out of nowhere, Ford exploded. I’d seen this movie before and knew I had to back him off the ledge quickly, if I could. “What’s wrong with my kids?” he screamed. “Don’t you ever say s–t about my kids. You’re way outta line!”

Those words, at least, I could understand. “Rob, your kids are beautiful,” I said, keeping my voice calm and friendly, pretending he wasn’t crazy-angry, so he could dial it down without having to make excuses, as if it hadn’t happened. “They’re great kids. I’ve never said anything bad about them. I’m just saying, this is a black-tie event, people have paid $150 a plate, it’s very crowded, very formal. There are no other kids here. I’ve got kids, too. They like to run around and have fun. There’s no place to do that here. They’ll be miserable. Why put them through that?”

“You leave my f–king kids out of this,” Ford growled, followed by a long, garbled sentence I couldn’t understand.

The last thing I needed was a drunk—or high—mayor crashing a high-society event. The media were actively digging into Ford’s past, looking for dirt to add to the court cases, the liquor-store sightings, the quiet rumours about his sobriety and after-hours behavior. Since the St. Patrick’s Day incident in 2012, we knew they were looking to tie Ford to alcohol, and even drugs, in a way they could report. We knew he was being regularly followed by media snoops and God knows who, wherever he went. There were mystery cars outside his house almost full-time now. Doug had even started imagining an airplane was following Rob. We were all getting a bit paranoid, I thought. But with good reason, I believed. (It turned out, as I learned well after I left the mayor’s office, there actually was a police airplane following Rob.)

We knew all this investigative effort by the media had turned up some dirt on the Fords—not just Rob, but Doug and the family. We just didn’t know what. We knew they knew we knew. What we didn’t know was what the hell Rob was doing when we weren’t with him. But the indications didn’t look good. He was regularly late for work, disappeared for days at a time and often slept at hotels with his kids, apparently keeping away from his wife, Renata. We knew he was drinking alcohol, sometimes to excess, more and more frequently. We suspected he was using more than alcohol. I’d already confronted him about it twice.

The city was growing tired of negative stories and behavioural scandals involving Rob Ford. I didn’t want him at this event, if he looked as bad as he sounded on the phone. If he did, his political career would be over.

I tried pleading. “Please, Rob. I’m begging you. You sound terrible. You’re obviously not well. Please, just turn around and take the night off. You deserve a night off.”

“I’m good, brother,” he answered, followed by more babble.

As a last resort, I tried ordering him. “Rob. Turn around and go home. You’re done. The night is over. Do not come here. If you come here, your mayoralty is over. You’ll be finished politically. It’ll all be over. Go home.”

He hung up on me.

I called right back and pleaded with Lisi to turn the car around. I explained the ballroom was full of soldiers and cops. Lisi said he’d try. I knew he wouldn’t.

Nico arrived in his own car and told me Rob and Lisi had made a detour somewhere; he wasn’t sure how long behind him they’d be. I left Nico at the door and went back into the dining room, praying they’d turned around and gone home. I threaded my way through the round tables of VIP diners clad in ball gowns and tuxedos, or scarlet military mess dress jackets, and sat down at my table. The other guests had finished their salads and were waiting for the main course. I explained that, as I was working, I’d have to keep my phone on the table—as uncouth as that was.

Less than 15 minutes later, my BlackBerry buzzed silently. I stood and answered it, already walking. It was Nico. “We’re at the front,” he said, sounding breathless and keyed up. “I need you right now.”

“On my way,” I replied, clicking off the phone and picking up my pace.

I made it outside the dining room and into the nearly empty foyer just as Ford burst through the doors. He looked like s–t on a stick. His face was scarlet and beaded with sweat. He was arguing with Nico and his arms were flailing around like a man trying to shoo flies away. The flies were his two children, each of them dressed to the nines, running circles around Rob’s tree-trunk legs.

To me, he appeared to be under the influence of something—alcohol for sure, and maybe something more. He smelled of too much aftershave. He was talking quickly and incoherently. I don’t know much about drugs or alcohol, but I’d never met a drunk who sped up. Alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant, right?

Rob was dressed in his black formal suit with a long black tie tugged to one side. One of his shirttails was hanging out of the front of his pants and his shirt was soaked through with sweat. I walked up close to him, so I could speak quietly with him and also so my body would block his dishevelled appearance from the view of anyone passing by.

“Hey Rob, you don’t need to be here,” I tried again.

“F–k off. We’re here and I’m going to the dinner,” he insisted and tried to push me out of the way. “Dougie, Stephanie, let’s go,” he said to his kids, with more waving and shooing with his arms.

This was a different Rob Ford than I was used to. I’d heard of this Rob Ford—from Earl, from George, and from the junior staff who attended events with him. But I’d never seen this first-hand. My God. Had he been like this before? Or was this worse than ever? Either way, I was racking my brain to figure out how I could get him out of there.

I backed up in front of him, trying to use my body to block his path to the ballroom, about 20 feet away. He kept plowing forward. “Get out of my way, Mark,” he said. “I swear, I’ll drop you if I have to.”

By this time, he was pressed up against me. I held my left arm across his chest, trying to physically restrain him. His bloodshot eyes were mere inches from mine. His breath was on my neck. “I’ll f–king drop you,” he said.

I could feel his body tense up. I was keenly aware of how close we were and where his hands and arms were. I wasn’t going to let him hit me, so I stepped back and opened some space between us. He glared at me and I stared back at him.

Just then, two middle-aged women in expensive gowns returned from the ladies room and walked around Ford and me. One of them looked him up and down, and said, “You should slow down and stop acting like a bull in a china shop!”

That may have helped Ford remember he was at a public event. But he repeated that he was going inside and I couldn’t stop him. I took a different tack.

“Okay,” I said, “but it’s hot in there and the kids still have their coats on. Let’s hang up their coats downstairs and get you straightened out; your tie needs straightening.”

After a few minutes of debate, he finally agreed we should check the kids’ coats, and he could use the washroom before going into the dinner. I led them around the corner away from the ballroom. Distance was my friend.

Once safely on the lower level, we checked the kids’ coats and Rob chatted up the servers in his usual retail-politics, aw-shucks style. He posed for pictures with the two women working the coat check. His chat with them became unusually familiar, almost flirtatious. He never became vulgar or suggestive, but it was unusual for him and I wasn’t comfortable with it. Still, I didn’t rush him along, because, the longer we were downstairs, the less time we would be upstairs in the full glare of the public eye.

Still, guests were coming and going from the washrooms. I told Ford discreetly that he needed to tuck his shirt in and he looked down. He proceeded to shove his errant shirttail down the front of his pants without turning around. The coat-check women chuckled.

Meanwhile, the kids were running rings around us, burning up energy. “I’m hungry!” Stephanie declared.

This allowed me an opening. I pointed out to Rob that there were no empty seats available for the kids, that the meal had already been served, and that it was food the kids wouldn’t like anyway. Why didn’t we send them to McDonald’s with Nico? It wasn’t far away.

Rob agreed. Nico reclaimed the kids’ coats and ushered them upstairs and out to the mayor’s car.

That was a relief. But Rob was determined to say hello to people. There was no point fighting him on this any further. “We’ll go upstairs and do a once-around the room,” I said, as firmly as I could. “Then we’re out of here. You look terrible and sound worse. So lots of smiling and shaking hands and not so much talking, okay?”

“Okay, boss,” he said.

We headed upstairs—me behind him this time, praying he didn’t slip. As we entered the room, I saw that the main course had been cleared and people were mingling between the tables, talking over the dinner music from a military band on the balcony.

Almost immediately, Rob was surrounded and shaking hands. He smiled and laughed and posed for dozens of pictures. Thank God it was hot and loud. Coun. Paul Ainslie spoke with Ford for a few minutes, then came up to me and said, “If you need any help, let me know.” As well, a few friends I knew in uniform, a member of Parliament, and a senior political staffer to a federal minister expressed concern for the mayor’s health, asking, “Is he okay?” “He’s not feeling well, and he’s tired after just making it back from Chicago,” I said—both statements quite true.

We’d made it halfway through the room and I was thinking we might pull this off, when the guest speaker was introduced and everyone began sitting down for the keynote speech. Ford and I were standing in the middle of the room, becoming increasingly conspicuous. I grabbed his elbow, told him we should sit during the speech, and tried to direct him to the table he was assigned to. It was in a dark back corner beside the stage, out of eyesight. Instead, Ford pulled out a chair in the middle of the room, right below the podium, and plopped himself down on it, surprising the table guests there.
“This isn’t your table,” I whispered into his ear. “Follow me, I’ll take you to your table.”

But Ford wasn’t moving. The room was loud and he was borderline incoherent, yet he was talking up a storm with the woman seated next to him and her date. Sitting next to him, I urged him to be quiet during the speech. The second it ended, I got Rob back on his feet. “Okay, let’s get out of here,” I said.

“Did we do the whole room?” he asked.

“Yes,” I lied. I guided him back to the doorway, and we made reasonably swift progress out of the building and over to the waiting Cadillac. The kids were in back, playing with Happy Meal toys. But Rob, now in a buoyant mood, didn’t want to leave right away. We stood outside his car while he rambled incoherently.

I introduced myself to Sandro Lisi, who was driving Ford’s Escalade, shaking his hand through the window, sizing him up. He was young, late 20s or early 30s, fit, and dressed in a casual but expensive shirt. He was sober, and looked amused by the situation. I asked him to take Rob straight home. He nodded.

Another man was also in the car. I don’t know where he came from, but Nico was familiar with him. Maybe they picked him up during the “detour” en route to the event. The mayor called him “Bruno,” and he hopped out of the front passenger seat to let the mayor in. He was older, mid- to late 50s, a thin, nervous-looking guy with rumpled clothes. He was bent over when he stood, and avoided eye contact when he spoke.

Rob immediately started abusing him, calling him names, pretending to fight with him. Ford pushed Bruno, claimed he could beat the s–t out of him, and aggressively kicked at him three or four times, coming dangerously close to connecting his massive legs with Bruno’s slight frame. Bruno scampered back into the front passenger seat like a whipped dog and crawled over the seat into the back of the truck, shouting at Rob to stop it. He said he was sick of his bullying and wasn’t going to stand for it anymore.

Rob laughed. Then he got wistful. This was a Rob Ford I’d heard on the phone before, late at night, babbling on about how it was me and the staff he was really sorry for. He’d “screwed everything up,” but he’d be okay, you know, because he had money. He was sorry for guys like me who didn’t have anything. No wife. No money. I’d heard it before from him in more than one late-night phone call.

He talked about how we should all party together. He’d get some whores for us and we’d party all night. He went on about how much fun he’d had in Chicago with his brother and Jim Flaherty. They’d partied and partied, he said. At some point, Doug and Flaherty had f–ked off and left him on his own. So f–k them. He talked about whores and drugs. It was hard to tell how much of the story was true.

He went on like that, veering from anger with the world to commiserating with me over how badly he’d f–ked everything up for everyone. At one point, he said he loved me; he wrapped his meaty arm around my neck to bend my head down while he kissed the top of it. It was awkward, but it wasn’t threatening. (Much later, stories would appear suggesting Rob had me in a headlock. That never happened, but I imagine the kiss may have looked like that to someone passing by.)

I kept trying to end the conversation and get him back into the car and out of there. Nico and I, along with Tom Beyer, who’d arrived after Ford was outside—I’d sent a “calling all cavalry” text to the staff—jockeyed around him to block him from view of people who began leaving the event early.

After about 20 interminable minutes, we managed to tuck Ford back into the car and send him off with Lisi and Bruno. I thanked Nico and Tom and sent them home. I braced myself for a mess to clean up in the morning.

Excerpted from: Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable by  Mark Towhey and Johanna Schneller. © 2015  Mark Towhey and Johanna Schneller. With permission from Skyhorse Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.