The second thing that happened this week to make me happy was that Justice Charles Hackland handed down his ruling in the conflict of interest case against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, removing Mayor Ford from office.
I’m not a fan of democratically-elected politicians being ousted on trumped-up-charges of whatever in a way that diminishes the democratic process, but in this case, the politician in question knowingly broke the rules for personal and political gain. I believe very strongly that this means he should no longer hold his political office, regardless of what I think of him as a person or as a mayor. I have heard the concerns – this is a left-wing conspiracy; where will it end; the people who want him out are just sore losers; if you elect someone you have to live with them and you can’t just use some backdoor shenanigans to get rid of them – but to be honest, I actually do hope this is the slippery slope I’m told it is and that it will lead to more politicians being held accountable for doing, you know, illegal stuff.
Please note that I have not included any of the usual red-faced, blustery pictures of Mayor Ford. The fact that he is not the most aesthetically pleasing Mayor Toronto has ever elected is irrelevant to the issue at hand. The fact that he was recently caught on video falling over while throwing a football is irrelevant. The fact that he is overweight is irrelevant.
Here are the facts:
While serving as a city councilor, Ford used city letterhead to solicit donations on behalf of a personal charity, a private football foundation created in his name, giving the impression that the City of Toronto was endorsing or soliciting on behalf of this foundation, which was not true. The City’s Integrity Commissioner ruled that this action was a breach of the city’s Code of Conduct and recommended to Council that Ford be required to pay the money back to the donors. Ford’s original fundraising-related action showed extremely poor judgement, but was not the reason for the court case or the judge’s decision to remove him from office, and this was clearly stated in the judgement.
When this item was put to Council, Councillor Ford cast a vote despite the fact that he had a clear pecuniary interest in the matter, as if it passed, he would be personally responsible for reimbursing the $3,150 to donors. In an affidavit included in the judgement, Council Speaker Sandra Bussin stated that she alerted Ford to the existence of a conflict of interest when the time came to vote, stating in a clear voice, “Councillor Ford. This matter deals with an issue regarding your conduct. Do you intend to declare a conflict? You are voting? Okay.” She further avowed, “Councillor Ford did not seem surprised when I told him that he had a conflict of interest. Instead, he just nodded to me, indicating that he understood what I had said but that he was voting on the item. He then proceeded to do so.”
Ford then ignored 6 requests from the Integrity Commissioner to repay the money – $3,150 would have made the whole issue go away – and the issue again was brought before Council. Ford spoke to the matter, describing the charity and saying, “And then to ask that I pay it out of my own pocket personally, there is just, there is no sense to this. The money is gone; the money has been spent on football equipment.” He also spoke in response to a question about the use of the letterhead, saying, “I made a mistake before a few years ago, for the last I don’t know how many years, that is exactly what I send out. No city logo, no titles. I don’t know what else I can say.”
Side note: When I say, “$3,150 would have made the whole issue go away,” I don’t mean that Ford should just have ponied up to make the Integrity Commissioner happy. Much has been made by Ford and people defending him about how he should not have been required to pay the money back personally, and how the money had gone to a charitable foundation to do good things, so what good is there in paying it back? If any of those donors made their donations under the false impression that the City of Toronto was somehow involved with the charity, then that impression needed to be corrected. The Integrity Commissioner however chose NOT to punish the charity for Ford’s mistake – a mistake he acknowledged – but instead asked Ford to act with integrity and make things right. He could have simply returned the money to the donors along with a letter that explained the situation – he had mistakenly used city letterhead in correspondence regarding a personal charity, he apologized for the misunderstanding, and would they still consider donating. If he truly believed that the use of city letterhead in no way influenced these donors’ decisions, he had no need to fear being out-of-pocket any money for more than a few days.
Ford then voted in favour of a motion to rescind the decision of the Integrity Commissioner to require him to pay the money back. The motion passed 22-12. If he had declared a conflict of interest and sat out the vote, it would still have passed by 9 votes. There was no need for him to vote at all.
This all would have been swept under the rug except that a citizen of Toronto decided to take the now-Mayor Ford to court over it, and when he testified, Ford argued that despite more than a decade in municipal politics, having been issued a copy of the City Council’s Code of Conduct each time he was elected to office, he had never read the Code of Conduct and was not aware that his speech and vote constituted a conflict of interest, since he did not benefit financially from the action, despite the fact that the Council Speaker had warned him of exactly that.
The judge ruled that this constituted “willful blindness” since there was no way a reasonable person could not have some understanding of how this would be a conflict of interest and that he did have a pecuniary interest since the decision meant that he didn’t have to pay back the $3,150 personally. To summarize, regardless of any good he has done, he broke the rules, he was called on it, he refused to make good, he was called on it again, he was taken to court, and he lied to try to get out of it.
The MCIA is important legislation. It seeks to uphold a fundamental premise of our governmental regime. Those who are elected and, as a result, take part in the decision-making processes of government, should act, and be seen to act, in the public interest. This is not about acting dishonestly or for personal gain; it concerns transparency and the certainty that decisions are made by people who will not be influenced by any personal pecuniary interest in the matter at hand. It invokes the issue of whether we can be confident in the actions and decisions of those we elect to govern. The suggestion of a conflict runs to the core of the process of governmental decision-making. It challenges the integrity of the process.
As far as I’m concerned, the decision to remove Rob Ford from the office of Mayor of Toronto does not undermine the democratic process, it upholds it. Moreover, as Joe Fiorito points out in his Toronto Star column, Justice Hackland actually issued the most lenient punishment that he was allowed to under the law – he was required, if he determined that the MCIA had been violated, to immediately remove Ford from office, but he opted NOT to bar him from seeking office again for 7 years.
If the worst thing that happens as a result of this case is that politicians learn that it’s not enough to get themselves elected – they actually have to, you know, be honest, ethical, and transparent in order to continue hold office. Is that really such a bad thing?