Lawyer Clayton Ruby’s motion to remove Rob Ford from office over a conflict of interest has been dismissed as a “witch hunt” by the mayor’s supporters. But if rules are not obeyed nor enforced, why do we have them?
There’s a problem with covering Mayor Rob Ford: When you try to provide normal analysis of events, you draw allegations of being part of a vast conspiracy led by union bosses and bike couriers who are bitter about the results of the October 2010 municipal election. Just describing facts and issues as they appear to be opens you up to accusations of penning a hatchet job on the mayor. Trying to be fair to him by writing a story that gives the appearance of balance requires a leap into fantasyland. On so many debates involving Rob Ford—from the size of the efficiencies he was allegedly going to find in government to the funding for subways to his guarantee not to cut services—you have a long list of evidence supported by facts and logical arguments on one hand, and then, on the other side, you have the mayor’s emphatic insistence that the evidence is wrong, supported only by his own proclaimed good intentions and the opinions of people he meets in the coffee shops. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, reality has a well-known anti-Ford bias.
For instance, after lawyer Clayton Ruby filed a motion today on behalf of a citizen accusing Rob Ford of violating conflict of interest guidelines—an offence punishable by removal from office—the immediate reaction from many was that the motion was ridiculous. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti called it a “witch hunt.” Even lefties characterized it as a partisan attack. The mayor’s press secretary said the issue had already been decided—oddly, he was suggesting the vote the mayor cast that allegedly violated the law as the moment of decision. And likely large segments of the general public will view this another instance of petty unfairness to the mayor—and of bias against him by those who do not say it is petty and unfair.
A brief look at the facts isn’t all that flattering to the mayor.
FACT: Provincial laws governing city politics say that when a politician has a financial interest in an issue, he or she “shall not take part in the discussion of, or vote on any question in respect of the matter” and “shall not attempt in any way whether before, during or after the meeting to influence the voting on any such question.” Politicians are, according to the act, responsible for declaring themselves in conflict and recusing themselves when a conflict arises.
FACT: On Feb. 7, council had a debate on whether Mayor Rob Ford should have to repay donors to his charity $3,150 as he had been ordered to do by the Integrity Commissioner. Ford participated in the debate, asking councillors to let him off the hook. He then voted with council to excuse himself from the penalty.
FACT: If a politician is found to have debated and voted on a matter in which they have a financial interest, the act says the judge “shall declare the seat of the member vacant” and “may” disqualify them from running for office for seven years and ask them to pay restitution. The penalty of removal from office can only be avoided if a judge rules that the offence was “committed through inadvertence or by reason of an error in judgment”—that is, accidentally, without knowing there was a conflict or by misunderstanding the rules.
I am neither a judge nor a lawyer, but the basic, so-far undisputed facts of this case suggest that the mayor had an obvious financial interest, and that he debated and voted on the matter anyway—voting to excuse himself from $3,150 in fines.
It would appear that the only defense that could save Rob Ford from being removed as mayor is that he, after 10 years as a councillor and one year as mayor, did not recognize that he had a financial interest in a vote to save himself $3,150 in penalties. And further, that none of the people he pays to advise him, as the head of Canada’s largest municipality and the CEO of the $9 billion corporation of the city of Toronto, could recognize this interest either.
So the pro-Ford line on this—the balancing piece of information that could save his job as mayor—is that we elected a man too stupid to understand the most obvious element of one of our primary anti-corruption laws and, further, that he staffs his office with people who cannot understand them either.
But, of course, acknowledging that doesn’t make you appear to be fairer to the mayor.
The picture becomes even worse, of course, when you look at what led to the particular vote where the alleged violation took place. Rob Ford had, according to the integrity commissioner, used the influence of his office to solicit donations for a charity he runs. The integrity commissioner noted that she had twice previously warned him not to do this after receiving prior complaints over a period of several months. She recommended as a penalty that he pay back the $3,150. City council voted, in August 2010, to enforce that penalty.
In January 2012, the integrity commissioner reported that he still had not repaid the money. Which led to council’s consideration of the issue, at which the alleged conflict of interest violation occurred.
So it was his refusal to pay the penalty for violating anti-corruption guidelines dealing with abuse of office (those trying to prevent soliciting bribes) that led to the vote in which he violated the anti-corruption laws regarding conflict of interest (those meant to avoid self-dealing).
Just to be clear: There is no particular reason to think the mayor was actively engaged in corrupt behaviour in either case. His argument, that the charity deserves money and he thinks the rulings against him are ridiculous, may appear to him to be a matter of principle. So let’s talk about principle. One principle he’s defending is the right to use his elected office to lead some people to believe they’ll be rewarded for directing money where he asks them to direct it, because it’s in the service of a good cause.
Another principle he’s insisting on is that if he finds a council decision ridiculous because it interferes with a good cause, he should be able to disregard the consequences of that decision and use his seat as mayor to persuade councillors to vote with him to overrule that decision.
This is very dangerous territory, whether the mayor realizes it or not. We have a long history of insisting that politicians and public servants obey rules that eliminate even the appearance of possible corruption. As Rob Ford made clear in railing about closed-door meetings when he was running for mayor, the appearances matter. And the rules matter: They protect the public from having its trust abused. And decisions about who gets penalized by the rules are not to be debated or voted on by those who are alleged to have broken them—you don’t get to serve on the jury in your own trial.
To be even fairer to the mayor, one could underscore his well-established position of apparently uncorrectable ignorance of the rules by pointing out the apparent conflict of interest that was raised when he outsourced $1,579 worth of city business-card printing to his family firm, a complaint he headed off by repaying the city in November 2011. At the time, he again proclaimed not to understand what he had done wrong.
So we can wave all these off as petty details, an ever-growing pile of technicalities, but the details in question are the very safeguards that protect our democracy from being abused. In the mayor’s defence, you can argue—as many are—that the violations here appear relatively minor, and that removal from office is too harsh a penalty for the alleged violations of the rules. That sounds reasonable to me—overturning election results is a fairly steep penalty.
But that is an argument for which the legislation should be changed to allow lesser penalties. It is a big and dangerous leap to argue instead that the law should not be enforced. And the harsh penalties the law requires are not sensibly evidence that attempting to enforce the law is unfairly partisan.
We have rules protecting us against potential government corruption for a reason. We expect our elected officials—and especially our mayor—to obey those rules. It is not partisan to hope he will, and to demand that he should.