The criminal investigation into the mayor’s friends produces more questions than answers and diverts nearly all attention away from serious city business. But the churn of negative press might actually serve Rob Ford’s ambitions. And that’s bad news for the future of Toronto.
To start, we can acknowledge that there’s a lot we don’t know about Mayor Rob Ford and the whole criminal-associations, police-investigation scandal that’s been slowly emerging since the alleged-crack-video story broke in May. We don’t know some things because the mayor won’t talk about them—in mid-October he even ran from his own press conference in a fit of anger after he was asked again to comment. Other things we don’t know because the police won’t talk about them, at least not officially or publicly—and leaks from inside police services raise as many questions as they answer. Sure, the things we do know don’t look good: At best, the mayor’s got a few black sheep in his social circle. But as we head towards 2014, and into the election campaign, the more pressing problem is what we don’t know.
We’ve come a long way from the relatively innocent (!) days of late spring when this whole business seemed like a simple matter of whether the mayor has used crack or other drugs, or has a substance abuse problem of some kind. Now we’re talking about the city’s highest elected official regularly hanging out with, and providing court references for, and possibly employing, active criminals. We’re talking about the mayor being in the middle of a web of incidents that includes shootings and stabbings and home invasions and massive gang-related arrests. Actually, we’re talking about it, and the mayor is not. That much we do know.
The pool of reliable information about this stuff is already full to overflowing. But because it’s come in waves and dribbles over the past months—in many cases, with anonymously sourced information later confirmed by documents or police activity—it has been hard to get the full measure of it. So, perhaps we should rehash the broad strokes.
In the headlines right now, there’s the case of Alexander “Sandro” Lisi, who is by the mayor’s own acknowledgement a friend who sometimes acts as his driver and errand runner. According to multiple reports in the Toronto Star, Lisi has long been suspected by the police and his neighbours of being a drug dealer (he has been charged with possession multiple times and convicted once), and he told his friends that he’s sold drugs to the mayor. Ford dismissed these stories, saying Lisi was “a great guy and straight as an arrow.” Lisi was arrested last month for marijuana trafficking, which added to a criminal history that already includes assaulting and threatening bodily harm to one woman, and threatening another with death. After the latter conviction in early June (which Lisi is appealing), Ford wrote a character reference letter for him, saying he is “courteous and polite.” Lisi reportedly attracted the police’s attention back in March when he took to the streets offering to trade drugs for a missing cellphone apparently belonging to the mayor. He and the mayor’s longtime friend and assistant, David Price, also reportedly went out looking for the alleged crack video in May after the scandal broke—paying a visit to the house where it was supposedly shot and demanding the video.
Then there’s Bruno Bellissimo, another acknowledged friend of Ford’s and a companion during official mayoral business as late as February, a crack addict who was recently convicted of assaulting his parents. Ford stopped by the Toronto West Detention Centre late at night in March, unannounced, and coyly asked for a tour before requesting a visit with his friend Bellissimo.
And there is the case of Payman Aboodowleh, who has a history of violent crime (including assaulting a peace officer) and who the Globe and Mail reported as being known as an enforcer in the drug business for Lisi. For at least four years, Aboodowleh was also an assistant coach of the high-school football teams the mayor famously oversaw, managing to bypass criminal background checks by misspelling his name. He was reportedly asked by the school board to leave the team at one point after an altercation with a player, but was reinstated the following year at Ford’s request.
Then there is the web of people involved in the famous photo of the mayor that emerged at the same time as reports about the alleged crack video. One of the three men pictured alongside Ford was shot dead in an execution in the club district in March. Another was shot but survived, and he and the third man were arrested in the massive Project Traveller gun, drug, and gang raids in June. The man who provided the photo to the press—a man who told Gawker that he has personally sold crack to the mayor and was attempting to sell the alleged crack video—was also arrested in the raids and, for reasons apparently related to the video, was non-fatally stabbed while being held in jail.
The mayor has dismissed the photo’s significance, explaining that he poses for pictures with lots of people. But the photo was shot in front of the house belonging to Fabio Basso (a friend of Ford’s from high school), his sister Elena Johnson, and their mother. The house is known to police as a “drug house,” according to a report in the Star, and was notorious among neighbours for the same reason, according to reports in multiple media outlets. Johnson was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2011. Basso, his girlfriend, and his mother were assaulted during a home invasion in the days after Lisi came to their house looking for the video.
We know that the mayor and at least some of these associates are the subject of a special police investigation called Brazen 2, headed by the force’s most seasoned homicide investigator. And we know that in the days after the crack-video story broke, as the mayor was saying he could not comment on a video that “I have never seen or does not exist,” most of his senior staff—including his chief of staff and two communications advisers—quit or were fired.
Yet, despite all of this information, we really don’t know a lot about the mayor’s involvement. The investigations will run their course without regard to political fallout, and the police will zealously guard information they think could help any eventual case—even as the media lobby for more details, like this week’s appeal for the release of the 500-page warrant that led to Lisi’s arrest. The mayor, for his part, brushes off questions about his role in all this, or what he knows about his friends, or the nature of their relationships, or whatever else may seem related, by saying, “Anything else?”
Well, yes, there is something else—a lot of somethings, actually, and that’s part of the problem, too. Because while this personal bit of police intrigue unfolds, we have a whole city needing governance. There’s transit and housing and community services, roads and sewage infrastructure and development to be overseen. And these are subjects worthy of sustained public attention. But it’s hard to steer the focus away from the mayor’s personal life when the potential implications of this police investigation and its various subplots are so serious.
In many ways, we were already obsessing about the mayor himself before the drug and criminal angles became the story. But in the first couple years of the Ford administration, we were still talking—a lot—about policy. Even if Ford’s personality got in the way, the city was still debating potential budget cuts and bike lanes, hammering out a transit plan in a bitter fight at council, or discussing the appropriate role of labour unions in delivering city services. And even during Ford’s more eccentric digressions—like the conflict-of-interest case or his undiplomatic approach to leading council—we were still talking about integrity or competence. And we were always talking about how the city is—and should be—run. Ford’s personal foibles were just one element of that contentious but important conversation about Toronto, the elephant in the room you sometimes couldn’t help mentioning. Now, Ford’s personal drama has taken over completely—the room is entirely made up of elephant.
Some may complain that this personal stuff has nothing to do with his job performance. But all of us should care if the mayor is directly involved in the criminal underworld, which this investigation suggests as a reasonable possibility. As leader of the city, the mayor should consider it his job to specifically dispel people’s fears that he’s involved with violent organized crime. Ford is unlikely to open up, of course—and his strategy of dismissing questions and speculation about his associations seems to be working for him, politically anyway. Those troubled by it will only be more so if he elaborates. Those who think it’s a plot to attack him need no further convincing. Meanwhile, the police will only implicate or exonerate him in their own due time.
We’re stuck in a tough spot—knowing just enough to be deeply bothered by what we still can’t be sure of, knowing also that we have no real independent means for confirming the truth. And to ignore that uncertainty during an election campaign would be negligent. One option is that the mayor steps aside until his role—innocent or otherwise—is determined, but to do so would irreparably damage his career. If he’s an innocent bystander to all this, that would be a travesty. Besides, despite what you might think, he isn’t hurt, politically, if the election campaign is all about him. He seems to like it that way. And so far, it seems likely that’s what we could get—an election that’s a referendum on the mayor’s personality and his social life.
And that, in the end, is one of the more depressing effects Ford has had as mayor—every time a real debate about the city threatens to break out, we get a new revelation about his personal life that hijacks the conversation. And there he is again saying, “Anything else?” The trouble is, there’s always something else.