BY EDWARD KEENAN
So, the same day that a reference letter the mayor wrote for a convicted murderer (who had served his sentence and recently found his tow-truck license in jeopardy for unrelated reasons) makes news, the reference letter he wrote for convicted death-threatener Alexander “Sandro” Lisi has been released by a judge.
Here it is—like the other reference, this one appears on official City of Toronto letterhead—in a photo courtesy of the Toronto Star:
So, what have we learned? Well, first of all, if you need a reference letter of any substance, you should probably not ask for Rob Ford to provide it. “He has a great work ethic and has always shown tact and diplomacy” may be the kind of things you’d hope someone would say about you if you were applying for a job, but they seem to be of little relevance to a judge weighing a criminal sentence. It’s not as if Lisi was convicted of being lazy and tactless. Unless threatening to kill someone is considered a mere breach of diplomacy (which, now that I think about it, I suppose it is, though phrasing it that way understates the case somewhat drastically). In any event, “has always shown tact and diplomacy” and “has always conducted himself in a courteous and polite manner” seem like the faintest of praise, which may be appropriate when you are providing a “character reference” for someone who appears to be of unsavoury character—reputed drug dealer, multiply charged drug possessor, repeat assaulter of women, and so on.
I’m a little puzzled, now that we see the letter, about why Lisi’s legal team—one imagines in coordination with the Fords—struggled to keep this letter from being publicly released. Its existence is damaging enough to the Fords (though I’m not sure how it affects Lisi’s legal interests or public image at all), but its substance contains little that worsens the hurt. I had suspected it might contain some kind of reference to Ford providing employment to Lisi (as a driver, or bodyguard, for instance), or some revelations about how they met, or some private information about personal knowledge of drug-treatment programs, or some glowing assertions of Lisi as an upstanding citizen that would look foolish in light of what he’s been accused and convicted of. It’s possible to see how any of those things might have made the mayor look worse, either because they’d expose him as being dishonest, or being a terrible judge of character, or because they revealed private information. (UPDATE: According to the Globe, while the mayor was not making those kinds of claims, Lisi himself was, telling his probation officer he expected to be employed by the city, ““with the endorsement of his ‘close friend,’ Mayor Robert Ford.” So I wasn’t too far off in assuming this kind of thing might have factored in.)
We do learn here—for the first time, I think—that the mayor claims to have met Lisi during the 2010 election campaign, when Lisi apparently volunteered and became a leader in his mayoral campaign. This is apparently news to the manager of that campaign, Doug Ford:
That campaign is, according to reports, also where the mayor met Amin Massoudi, now his communications chief and the subject of his own mini-scandal-type-thing today. It was reported by the Toronto Star that Massoudi had been fired by campaign guru Nick Kouvalis after some kind of police interaction involving marijuana in Massoudi’s car (no charges were laid and the Star could not at the time confirm the information provided by sources). Massoudi was reportedly given a job in Rob Ford’s constituency office for the duration of the campaign, then was hired by Doug Ford’s city hall office, then finally promoted into the mayor’s office—after Kouvalis and the rest of his gang of political professionals from 2010 were long gone—during the week of peak crack scandal.
ANYHOW. It appears the mayor failed to follow several of the guidelines adopted by City Council in 2006 at the recommendation of the integrity commissioner on “providing letters of reference in any context in their capacity as Members of Council,” as pointed out by @cinemaven on Twitter. Those guidelines warn against “To Whom it may concern” letters, and tell members of council, “Do not provide references where the only basis for doing so is to use the influence of your office or to help someone you know merely as a constituent, friend or relative.”
Some people seem particularly distressed by the use of city letterhead in these reference letters, and understandably so, since it might be seen to imply that the reference is coming in some official capacity from The Office of The Mayor of Toronto. But when I provide references—for job applications by former colleagues and employees, for instance—I always do so on my company letterhead. Because the value of the reference is both personal and professional—to those who don’t know me, the credibility of the reference comes from my place of employment and job title. And I think that goes equally, or more so, in the case of the mayor. That he is the mayor of Toronto is the reason people would want to use him as a character reference. And that’s the reason why his opinion might have weight with anyone receiving the letter. Kind of like how you need a priest or lawyer or someone like that to sign your birth-certificate application.
Which is all to say that, when it comes to the mayor of Toronto, the person and the office are in some respects inseparable. Whatever he does, personally or professionally—including vouching for people as a character reference—he does knowing the weight of his holding the elected office reflects on how that action is perceived. And conversely, whatever he does personally or professionally also reflects on him in his capacity as the holder of that elected office. Which is why, I think, all these stories that seem to be about his personal conduct and associations are legitimate matters of public interest. And also why I think the use or non-use of letterhead for this kind of thing might be a side point.
What’s more interesting (and potentially distressing) to me doesn’t come from the content of the letter itself. It comes from the existence of the letter, and its timing, and the unexplained nature of the relationship between Lisi and Ford. What we know about that relationship, and the timing of some of their interactions, comes from press reports—other than the mayor’s one claim about Lisi: ““He’s a friend, he’s a good guy, I don’t throw my friends under the bus.”
What we know from other published reports:
1. On February 23, Sandro Lisi drove the mayor to the Garrison Ball, which became the subject of news stories in late March after it was reported that the mayor had been asked to leave because he was “out of it.”
2. In March 2013, the mayor lost his cell phone. According to the Star, Sandro Lisi went looking for it on the street, allegedly offering to swap drugs for the phone. This search, according to the Star, came to police attention and was the genesis of a special investigative squad headed by the city’s most seasoned homicide investigator looking into the mayor and his associates, including Lisi. According to the Star, the mayor did get his phone back, through unknown means.
3. On May 8, Lisi accompanied the mayor to a Toronto Maple Leafs game, where, according to the Star, “At that event, Ford and Lisi disappeared together into a small washroom in the director’s lounge, with no explanation given when they emerged.”
4. On May 17, the morning after the story alleging the mayor appeared on a mobile phone video showing him smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine, Lisi appeared at a gas station near the mayor’s house alongside mayoral assistant David Price, shielding Ford from the press. Later that day, according to reports in various news outlets, the mayor privately suggested to staff addresses where the video might be held, and David Price asked the mayor’s chief of staff “hypothetically” what he should do if he knew where the video was.
5. In the days after that, Lisi and Price are reported to have gone out looking for the video in the street:
In one attempt to retrieve the video, soon after news of its existence broke on May 16, Lisi paid visits to the Etobicoke house where a group of men from the Dixon Rd. community involved in the crack cocaine trade were known to hang out. The bungalow is home to Fabio and Elena Basso, both friends of Ford.
“Where are the guys who made the video, Fab,” Lisi said, according to a witness who was present. “You know where they are.”
Fabio Basso, a quiet man, was nervous. “They’re gone. Out of town. Gone to Windsor,” said Basso. The Star does not know what Lisi did with that information.
A day later, just before midnight, Fabio, his girlfriend, and Fabio’s mother were assaulted by an unknown attacker brandishing an expandable baton who broke into their home. No charges have been laid in the attack.
6. On June 4, the mayor provided the character reference above for Lisi.
7. In August, Sandro Lisi begins to be subject to press attention, in stories about his associations and about the police investigation looking into the mayor’s associates.
8. On October 1, Lisi was arrested for drug possession, trafficking, and other offences, in a raid carried out by the squad the Star reports is investigating the mayor and his associates.
So this reference was supplied, according to this timeline of news items, just after Lisi had gone searching for the mayor’s cellphone, and within a week or two of when Lisi was out searching houses of ill repute to find the alleged crack video. In the week leading up to June 4, you’ll recall, what seemed like the entire staff of the mayor’s office was packing their stuff into boxes and walking out the door. On the day of June 4, the source who’d offered to sell the crack video to Gawker apparently told them it “might be gone.”
So that’s the context in which this character reference was written and submitted to the court. It is disturbing that the mayor thought it a good use of his personal credibility to intervene in a sentencing hearing on behalf of a man convicted of threatening his ex-girlfriend with death–especially so considering his apparent history of violence against women. But I find the timing of the reference—provided at a moment when so many of the mayor’s other senior staffers were “throwing him under the bus” and Lisi was, reportedly, offering dangerous services to the mayor that apparently drew the attention of the police department—very informative, too, suggesting further questions about the nature and extent of the relationship between Lisi and Ford. More so than the content of the letter itself.