More troubling is what’s allowed.
Sometimes, the shocking thing is not the way people break the rules, it’s what the rules allow. This has been one of the themes of Rob Ford’s career as a self-appointed protector of the public purse: When he shouted about bunny suits and coffee machines charged to expense accounts, $12,000 retirement parties paid for from office budgets, development negotiations under Section 37 of the planning act being a “shakedown,” or sole-sourced contracts that “stink to high heaven,” Ford wasn’t decrying illegal behaviour, but the things routinely permitted that ought to cause us all to raise an eyebrow.
I had a similar experience reading the compliance audit of Mayor Ford’s 2010 campaign, which was released last Friday. In response to a formal complaint, auditors investigated the mayor’s campaign finances and found dozens of “apparent” violations of elections law. A City Hall board will consider on Feb. 25 whether to send those findings to court for possible discipline (he could be removed from office, fined, or receive no discipline), but in the meantime, I was interested to read the details for other reasons.
For instance, in June 2011, half a year after the election, while Ford was the sitting mayor, he attended a party in the home of Robert DeGasperis, who is president of a development company called Metrus Properties. Doug Ford, the chair of Build Toronto, the city agency that sells public real estate to developers, also attended. We do not know who else was there or what was discussed. The result of that meeting was that an envelope containing $25,000 in cheques from 10 donors was passed from DeGasperis to former premier Mike Harris, and on to Ford’s campaign to help settle his outstanding election debt.
The same week, Paul Golini, an executive with developer Empire Communities, had a Ford fundraiser in his home that was attended by the mayor and about 40 members of BILD, the Toronto developers’ association. The $2,450 catering bill was picked up by a former CEO of BILD. Those at the party gave the mayor’s campaign $19,500.
Earlier that month, yet another private party was held for the mayor at Harbour 60 restaurant. We don’t know who attended, and we don’t know what they discussed. The tab for the 28 people in attendance came to just over $9,000, and was picked up by the owners of the restaurant. After meeting with the mayor, guests at the event saw fit to donate $27,000 to his long-finished campaign.
So in June 2011, as outlined in the audit report, a bunch of unknown people, many of whom appear to be developers, gave a total of $71,500 to retire Rob Ford’s outstanding campaign debt after private meetings with him. That was the same month that Ford proposed a massive selloff of TCHC properties and killed the Jarvis bike lanes. It was during the period when Doug Ford was shaping his proposal to radically change and speed up the plan to develop the Port Lands. It was the same period when Ford was studying how to get the private sector involved in building subways.
In each case, the auditors suggest that the way the revenue and expenses for these events were reported (or unreported) was an apparent violation of the rules. But they do not suggest there’s anything wrong with the meetings themselves—indeed, this kind of thing may just be the way things are done. I’m certainly not suggesting anything improper took place at the meetings or after them.
Still, the fact that our political process can, without raising eyebrows, involve private meetings in which rich people, many of whom have large financial interests in city decisions, hand over big cheques in exchange for a private audience with the mayor—and the chair of a key city agency—creates a huge possibility for impropriety. What did they discuss? What were those in attendance hoping for when they wrote those big cheques? We do not know.
The rules are complicated and the accounting absurdly subjective, so I’m not sure how troubled I should be by the instances of apparent rule-breaking pointed out by the auditors. Instead, I’m troubled by some of the ways this campaign didn’t break the rules. It may be business as usual, but it looks bad and it stinks to high heaven. Isn’t that what Rob Ford would say about these meetings if we were talking about any other politician?