This week’s Rob Ford courtroom show was a profoundly depressing experience—both for what it says about our proudly ignorant mayor and the city that elected him.
Watching Robert Bruce Ford testify in courtroom 6-1 of the Ontario Superior Court building at 361 University Ave. on Wednesday, at the hearing into the civil conflict-of-interest complaint launched against him, was supremely uncomfortable. He slouched in the stand next to Justice Charles Hackland in a blue suit, red-faced and pouting, his voice a fragile croak. The expansive mayor of Canada’s largest city appeared to shrink throughout the day, as two of the most famous and accomplished lawyers in Canada argued his fate in terms he frequently claimed he did not understand before the chief justice of Ontario’s eastern region.
Clayton Ruby, acting for the complainant against Ford, reminded him of the oath of office he had sworn four times in 10 years, solemnly promising to uphold the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. “What steps, if any, did you take to find out what the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act required of you?”
“None,” Ford said softly. There was then a long pause. Four, five seconds? The silence seemed to stretch on.
“None?” Ruby said. Another pause. “That’s your answer?”
Ruby reminded him that the council handbook he would have been given every single time he was elected contained information about the act, and about how to avoid conflicts of interest. Ford said he didn’t recall ever getting or seeing or reading a copy. Ruby reminded him of the councillor-orientation sessions available to help teach councillors the basics of the job—sessions that might have covered the Act. Ford said that since his father had been a member of provincial parliament, he had not needed to go to any orientation. Had he ever asked for the free legal advice he was entitled to about conflicts? Or any legal advice? “I did not.”
Ford had outlined, and would repeatedly outline, his own understanding of the conflict of interest act—”How I define a conflict of interest is if it’s financially beneficial to the city and financial beneficial to me personally.” Therefore, since the actions he is here to defend or explain—speaking and voting on a motion pertaining to whether he should be forced to pay a $3,150 penalty imposed on him by the integrity commissioner—had no financial implication for the city, they were not a conflict. “Because it doesn’t benefit the city. It has nothing to do with the city. This is my issue personally.” This was, it is fair to say, a definition of conflict of interest that was new to almost everyone familiar with the term.
Yet Ford insisted he had held this interpretation for 12 years, and moreover he insisted that this was the correct definition. It was, he said, how he interpreted the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
Ruby had Ford read the relevant passage of the Act aloud in court. “It says nothing whatsoever about the city having a financial interest,” Ruby suggested, and Ford appeared to acknowledge that this was the case.
“I’ve never read it before.” Ford said.
“You have to have read it before! It’s the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act!”
“I’ve never read it.”
“I read it to you at the deposition,” Ruby reminded him, as he started to leaf through his paperwork to find the relevant page of the transcript of that conversation from earlier this summer.
“You read it to me. I’ve never read it,” Ford said.
A minute later, Ford repeated his understanding of the Act’s contents. “I always thought, for 12 years, and I still believe, that a conflict is when the city has a benefit and when I have a benefit. This is a personal issue and had nothing to do with the city.”
“You had no doubt that your interpretation of the Act,” Ruby said—an interpretation the mayor had just admitted was based on total ignorance of the Act’s contents complemented by an absence of any conversation he could recall with anyone about it—”was the correct one?”
“No,” Ford said. And after a pause, “I have said…” and then he repeated again his own interpretation.
And on it went. Ford claimed he had no idea what the City Solicitor’s job description was. He repeatedly said he was unable to understand questions—one about how the city clerk could not possibly be expected to know about his private financial interests, for example.
Ruby suggested—citing Madame Justice Denise Bellamy’s report on the MFP corruption scandal of just a few years ago—that the mayor has a leadership role on council on ethics. Did Ford think he had such a leadership role?
“No. I’m not special. I don’t consider myself special.” Then, as if realizing how that sounded, he croaked on, “leadership of the city as a whole, sure. But on council I just get one vote.”
And on it went. There was a mortifying set piece Ruby introduced that everyone in the courtroom could see coming as clearly as if it were an elephant lumbering in through the side of the courtroom, but one that Ford seemed to not understand until it was too late. It involved Ford proudly producing his gold-embossed city hall business card to show what he gives to everyone one he meets—a method he’d claimed to use to raise funds for his football foundation. Once Ruby pointed out that the business card was a city resource, and he is explicitly forbidden from using city resources to fundraise for private charities, the mayor started backtracking on his claim to speak with everyone about the foundation, talking about how he only brought it up with people he spoke to at length. Very few people, in fact.
The court broke for lunch. There were hours of this still to come. On it dragged into the afternoon. Ruby asking him simple questions, Ford claiming he could not remember any event with any particular clarity, he had no particular understanding of the role of various city staffers, he had never sought any advice he could recall about any question, legal or otherwise. He said things that were simply absurd—I would be considered a cruel satirist if I imagined Ford saying the city’s “financial interest” (as defined in the Act) in seeing Shelley Carroll appointed to a provincial agency instead of Doug Ford lies in the fact that Doug Ford is a more fiscally prudent politician. And yet that is exactly what he said. When confronted with inconsistencies in his own testimony, he shrugged and repeated his understanding of the conflict-of-interest laws, or claimed he couldn’t recall, or that he saw no inconsistency.
At one point, trying to show that Ford’s claim to always have believed his benefit-the-city/benefit-me understanding of the matter was disingenuous, Ruby played a video of Ford declaring a conflict of interest on another occasion. At that time, the matter was a report from the Integrity Commissioner suggesting Ford be reprimanded for an entirely different issue. There were, as laid out in the report, no financial implications from the City at all. Ford, on the video, stood at City Hall and said that since the report was about him, he could not speak or vote on it, and he had to leave the chamber. He said it himself, simply and straightforwardly.
“On that day, you understood the simple principle: if the report is about Rob Ford, you can’t take part in the debate, yes?” Ruby asked.
“No,” Ford said.
“I heard your voice. I heard you speak the words,” Ruby said. “Did you understand the words as you were speaking?”
“No,” Ford said.
That exchange summed up a lot of the discomfort in the courtroom over the whole proceeding. Did you understand the words as you were speaking? No. Anyone with even a small fleck of empathy inside their heart felt humiliated on behalf of the mayor—I had repeatedly felt the urge to run up to the mayor’s side and try to help translate the proceedings for him. It was not a feeling that the mayor was being treated unfairly, exactly, just a natural empathic reaction to watching him being exposed so thoroughly. Yet another observer, a woman I met in the elevator, compared the experience to watching a caged animal being repeatedly stabbed with a stick, unable to escape or respond or even really understand exactly what was going on. The feeling watching it was physical: a creeping queasiness.
Next page: Rob Ford is ignorant—and proudly so