Mayor Rob Ford, a twelve-year veteran of municipal politics and leader of Canada’s largest city, wants a judge to believe that he simply doesn’t understand what a “conflict of interest” actually is and that he could never be bothered to learn the real definition.
That seemed to be his strategy, anyway, as he took the stand today for cross-examination by prominent lawyer Clayton Ruby. Ford, under fire for voting to excuse himself from a council order to pay back $3,150 in charitable donations he raised from lobbyists and other businesses, kept going back to a made-up, mangled, non-sensical definition of “conflict-of-interest.”
I spent most of the day trying to understand what he meant. It was enough to make you want to slam your head against the wood-panelled walls of the University Avenue court room.
Ford insisted that a true, bona fide conflict of interest had to involve two parties: the city and a member of council. “How I would define a conflict of interest is if it’s both financially beneficial to the city and financially beneficial to myself,” he told Ruby. In the case of the allegations brought against him by the City’s integrity commissioner, Ford declared, there was no conflict, as it didn’t relate to the city’s finances, and there was only one party involved: him.
But that definition doesn’t jibe with either the text of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act or council’s Code of Conduct. When Ruby tried to call Ford on this—even asking the mayor to read the relevant sections of both documents—Ford professed to having never bothered to read them before. He also said he never recalled receiving a council handbook, despite it seemingly being standard issue for councillors at the start of every term.
The mayor even explained that he even skipped the orientation session provided for newly-elected councillors—he figured that he already knew what he needed to know because his father, Doug Ford Sr., was briefly an MPP.
Further, Ford claimed that he’s always relied heavily on others—mostly city legal staff—to tell him when he faced a potential conflict during council and committee meetings.
Though Ford ultimately admitted that he was solely responsible for declaring his own conflict—”It’s up to myself to declare a conflict for myself,” he said—the mayor kept coming back to the notion that someone should have told him he was walking into a potential conflict-of-interest scenario when he voted, twice, to excuse himself from paying back $3,150 this past February.
“If someone had told me I had a conflict at the time, I wouldn’t have spoke and I wouldn’t have voted.” But Ford demurred when asked if he thought what he did was wrong. “That’s for a judge to decide,” he said.
And then he again repeated his weird, perplexing definition of “conflict of interest.”
Toward the end of the day, Ruby tried challenging Ford’s definition directly, playing video from a May 2010 council meeting in which Ford excused himself from a vote on an Integrity Commissioner report due to an advised conflict-of-interest, explaining that he couldn’t vote on a report about himself.
But that item, like the item Ford voted on in February, didn’t meet Ford’s wacky definition of a “conflict of interest” either. In fact, the report, sparked by a leak of confidential information relating to a real estate deal, stated up front that it had “no financial impact” on the city.
So why did Ford feel that he needed to declare a conflict on that item in 2010 but not the one he’s been hauled to court over? The mayor couldn’t say, pointing only to the fact that legal staff had advised him to declare a conflict in 2010 but not in 2012.
“I heard you speak the words! Did you understand the words you were speaking?” Ruby asked.
“No,” admitted the mayor.
Okay. So that’s it. Rob Ford is now a mayor who, admittedly, sometimes doesn’t understand the words he speaks. He’s a mayor who doesn’t bother to read the basic documents that lay out how to do his job without breaking the law. He’s a mayor seemingly incapable of understanding why soliciting charitable donations from lobbyists using city business cards is a bad idea. He’s a mayor who has only a fleeting grasp of what a “conflict of interest” actually is—and doesn’t see anything wrong with voting to save himself $3,000.
He’s a mayor who doesn’t get it.
At one point today, Ruby made the same accusation: “You just don’t think!”
A small pause. “I think,” insisted the Mayor of Toronto, not really convincing anyone.