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.
On Thursday morning, the hearing resumed for the final submissions from both sets of lawyers. Ford was back in the morning, sitting by himself now, alone at the the long table behind his lawyers. Clayton Ruby began his summary of the arguments against the mayor, and Ford hunched forward with his arms crossed, impassive, occasionally scribbling notes on a pad in front of him.
As an aside, I’ll mention for anyone who has never sat through court proceedings that they are less dramatic than you might expect. You’ve got some pomp—the judge wears a big red sash, the lawyers wear long robes, everyone is asked to rise as the judge enters the courtroom, and all the lawyers refer to the opposing lawyers as “my friend”—but there is little ceremony. Or maybe, as Neville Park said to me, there is so little performance. The judge speaks so quietly you have to strain to hear him from the gallery. The lawyers, facing the judge (and away from the gallery) were mumbly or whispery, sometimes bordering on inaudible. And let me say that courtroom TV shows and movies dramatically understate the amount of time spent in court ensuring all parties can find the relevant page in the huge volumes of supporting documents they all have beside them. A 30-second argument about a specific precedent will be followed by “And now if you’ll turn with me to page 76, 16th paragraph in the Factum” and then a minute or two of flipping and asking what tab number this is at and checking whether everyone is referring to the right book…. Getting on the same page is a literal expression in court hearings—or at least this one—and it occupies much time and attention.
Anyhow, as things picked up, an associate of Ruby’s made some arguments about admitting evidence, and then finally Ruby’s summation—er, “final submission”—began. He briefly went over how clearly Ford’s act of voting to excuse himself from a fine appeared to contravene the Act, and how Ford himself had made it clear, insistently and repeatedly, that he thought that paying the money out of his own pocket was significant for him. But the bulk of Ruby’s time was spent discussing that an “error in judgement” requires good faith. First, Ruby suggested Ford’s stated understanding of the Act was a lie. Ford repeatedly swore a solemn oath to uphold the Act and claims to never have read the Act. “Simply not believable,” Ruby said. Ford’s stated understanding of the Act was “nonsense,” Ruby said. “Gibberish.” It “cannot be his true understanding.” And even if it was true, it was still not good faith, since good faith means you need to have tried, reasonably, to comply with the law.
He dissected how the mayor had shown no good faith efforts to attempt to do so, and had shown no evidence he felt he’d erred in his judgement. This went on for quite a long time. Ruby walked us through Ford’s insistence—his repeated insistence—that he had never, ever read the Act or any of the many guides he’d been provided to how to comply with the Act, had never sought legal advice on conflicts, had no procedure in his office for trying to identify and avoid conflicts, and that he had in fact at least once disregarded a friendly heads-up from a political opponent that he might be in conflict.
“That is not good faith,” Ruby said. “That is willful ignorance.” He went on, a little later, to say, “He is clearly not doing what any reasonable person would do. He is proceeding from reckless ignorance.”
Ford sat, frowning, a few feet away. He did not visibly react emotionally to any of this. But it wasn’t apparent he even would, if inclined to display an emotion other than pouty boredom, react in the way you’d expect someone accused of being “recklessly ignorant” to react. Because here’s the thing: Reckless ignorance was the gist of his own testimony in his defence. Excuse me if this sounds repetitive, but I’m, in a good-faith attempt to be fair to the mayor, revisiting his testimony again and again in my mind: He insisted he had a specific understanding of the Act, but then further insisted his understanding was based on having no information whatsoever about the Act—he had, in fact, said he actively avoided getting any information about it from anyone; he had acknowledged, after reading the Act for—apparently—the first time, in court, that it did not appear to support his interpretation, but then in the next breath said he still believed his interpretation was right. He insisted, when confronted with video evidence that he had once pronounced a more traditional interpretation of the Act, he had not understood the words as he had spoken them. This is key: Ruby suggested he had understood the Act then, had spoken a perfectly reasonable interpretation of it, and was being dishonest now; he was countering with the explanation that he was being honest now, it’s just that he did not and had never understood it—even when speaking on the matter and acting on it, he did not understand it. And then he went right back to insisting that his current stated understanding of the Act was, in his opinion, correct.
And here was a capsule for Ford’s entire political career—or at least his career as a mayoral candidate and as mayor. He claimed he could eliminate, literally, billions of dollars in waste—he “guaranteed it.” He claimed that cutting tax revenue was an efficiency that would help the City balance the budget. He claimed that proposals to eliminate grants and slash funding for services and, for example, end snow removal on side streets were not “cuts,” in his interpretation, they were “efficiencies.” On and on. On virtually every issue, this kind of thing.
All along, a lot of observers debated whether he was lying or whether he was wrong. The suggestion that he actually believed this stuff seemed paramount to calling the man an idiot; the suggestion he did not believe it amounted to calling him a liar. The reporters at the dailies racked their brains to figure out a way to report this situation that would not appear to be biased against the mayor—because the simple facts very often contradicted him. Either way, in the minds of his supporters and plenty of helpful Twitterati who would warn that any effort to hold the mayor to account would be interpreted as an unfair attack, asking the simple question—this cannot, possibly, be his true understanding, can it?—amounted to a vicious attack on Rob Ford and his voters. His personal behaviour—wildly outrageous and widely reported enough that it does not need repeating here—was more of the same. Asking a question at all about how this temperament aligned with the requirements of his job was just a case of witch-hunting. Why are you getting hung up on details? You’re just jealous he won. You just hate him because he’s a fat guy. You’re carrying water for unions.
And now here it was—applied to this specific case, but clearly applicable to so much else about him: Willful ignorance. Reckless indifference. He did not understand the words as he was speaking them. And does not want to. That is not just the accusation made against him by Ruby, that is the essential gist of the testimony he offered in his defence.
It was far more devastating to sit through than any attack on him by an opponent could be. He is, after all, the mayor of Toronto.
Next page: What will the judge decide?