Rob Ford may have outsourced “only” $1,200 worth of business-card production to his family business. But based on the mayor’s own definitions of wasteful spending and corruption, he ought to resign.
UPDATE: After this story was written and edited, it was brought to my attention that the mayor’s office produced evidence it sought competitive bids for the business card contract. Earlier reports from multiple outlets either implied or outright stated that this had not been the case. Originally this column made reference to the contract as “sole-sourced,” and that appears not to have been the case. I have edited the story below to reflect this updated information, and regret that it originally contained incorrect information.—Edward Keenan
Rob Ford used his expense account to pay about four times as much as he had to for business cards, the Toronto Star reported late last week. And the contract to produce those cards went to Deco Labels and Tags, the company he owns with his family.
Before he was mayor, Rob Ford had a word for this kind of thing. Several words, actually. When a city contract was awarded to a contributor to former councillor Sandra Bussin’s election campaign, Ford called it “corruption.” After Giorgio Mammoliti made liberal use of his own expense budget, Ford called him a “scammer” and accused him of “abusing taxpayers.” In 2002, a contract to build a splash pad in North York with donated funds—no taxpayer money involved at all—was sole-sourced to a company willing to offer free labour. An outraged Ford said, “If this is not blatant corruption, I don’t know what is.”
So what should we call the mayor’s actions? There’s a legal term that applies, of course: “conflict of interest.”
This isn’t even the first time Ford has directed taxpayer money into his own company’s accounts. His mayoral campaign paid over $110,000 to Deco for printing and office space. Since up to 75 per cent of campaign donations (and thus expenses) are reimbursed by the city, this means as much as $82,500 of city money may be sent to Rob Ford’s company by the Rob Ford for Mayor campaign. But reimbursement of campaign donations depends on his campaign finances being declared legal by the Compliance Audit Committee, and the fight over a possible audit rages on.
So let’s focus on the details of the current conflict of interest: The mayor’s office paid Deco Labels $1,579.15 for 20,600 business cards, which comes out to about 7.5 cents per card. Using the in-house city printer, Councillor Josh Matlow got his cards for 1.65 cents each. If the mayor had used the city printer for his order and got the same rate as Matlow, he’d have saved the city more than $1,200.
He’d also have avoided violating the City of Toronto’s conflict of interest guidelines. Awarding a city contract to a company you own is pretty much the textbook example of an actual conflict of interest. So what’s the punishment for violating the policy? For employees, it can mean dismissal.
Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother and a co-owner of Deco Labels, said on the radio that the mayor did not want to invoice the city for the cost of the business cards, but was advised by the ethics commissioner to have the city pay. No doubt there was a reason for that advice, but now the ethics commissioner has reason to investigate the conflict of interest.
On Tuesday, the mayor’s office announced he’d reimburse the city for the expense. But offering to repay the money doesn’t erase questions about what took place. A car thief cannot escape punishment from the law by simply returning the car after he’s been caught. Similarly, the question is not if Ford will repay the damages, it’s how and why he failed to avoid this conflict of interest in the first place. There’s a principle here worth much more than a few thousand dollars—the principle of how spending decisions get made, and how citizens’ interests are protected.
Is $1,200 too small an amount of money to get worked up over? Well, no amount of waste has ever been too small to enrage Rob Ford. When a councillor once expensed a $281 coffee machine, Ford screamed blue murder. Earlier this year, he was alone in voting against recreation grants, including $1,200 to the Broadview Community Youth Group and $800 to the Davenport Dufferin Community Centre.
Rob Ford defined the standard by which use of expense accounts and contract awards should be judged abusive or corrupt. He defined the principle by which $1,200 in spending should be considered an outrage. Then he spent $1,200 in taxpayer money he did not need to spend, and funnelled the money into his own company. Saying “whoops” and cutting a cheque now that the press has pointed it out cannot erase the misdeed. By the rules Ford defined, he ought to resign. And if he won’t judge himself by the standard he set, council ought to do it for him.