Lawyers for Rob Ford will usher in the new year by asking an Ontario court to set aside a decision by Toronto council’s compliance audit committee and instead hold a trial, complete with new evidence, to probe allegations that the mayor violated Ontario’s municipal elections act during last year’s campaign.
But a Toronto election law expert predicted that the gambit may not succeed because courts in the past have been reluctant to veto decisions of appointed expert bodies, such as compliance audit committees. “I think it’s a real uphill struggle” for Tom Barlow, Mr. Ford’s counsel, said lawyer Jack Siegel.
In a private session, a judge Wednesday set a court date of Jan. 19 to listen to arguments from both Mr. Barlow and lawyers for Toronto residents Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler and Max Reed, who requested an audit after an investigation by The Globe and Mail. Mr. Ford’s legal team has been asked to file their pleadings by late December. A full hearing is set for May, with Justice Richard Schneider, a highly regarded judge who specializes in mental health cases, presiding.
Mr. Reed and Mr. Chaleff-Freudenthaler have alleged that Mr. Ford, as a candidate, accepted indirect corporate campaign contributions and relied on early financing from a family-owned holding company in contravention of Ontario election rules. Mr. Ford has consistently denied that his campaign broke any laws.
Council’s three-person compliance audit committee, which includes former Ontario Municipal Board chair, a commercial lawyer and a veteran electoral officer, ordered a full forensic review of the mayor’s campaign finances in May.
Mr. Ford’s lawyers appealed the decision. The mayor to date has spent over $55,000 on legal fees, with funds drawn from his campaign account.
“We believe strenuously that the compliance audit committee made a well-founded decision based in fact,” said Mr. Chaleff-Freudenthaler, a long-time member of the Toronto Library Board and a former school trustee candidate. “We believe there was no error in judgment.”
Mr. Barlow did not respond to interview requests. Sunny Petrujkic, a spokesman for the Mayor’s office, said it would not comment on the matter because it is before the courts.
According to Mr. Siegel, judges in the past have heard detailed evidence in compliance audit appeals in Hamilton and Niagara Falls. But this process, he added, typically occurred in situations in which municipal councils had rejected a compliance audit request and the complainant in turn appealed to the courts.
Under new rules, city councils no longer approve or reject the decisions of compliance audit committees. In Mr. Ford’s case, the committee reviewed submissions prepared by Mr. Reed and Mr. Chaleff-Freudenthaler based on the mayor’s campaign finance filings. The committee members also questioned Mr. Barlow and Stephen Chan, the campaign’s chief financial officer and a long-time employee of the Ford’s family company, Deco Labels and Tags.
When presented with the decision of an expert body like a compliance audit committee, Mr. Siegel said, the courts usually only overturn their rulings if they are deemed to be unreasonable or beyond the jurisdiction of the committee.
If, however, the court opts to scrutinize the documents and even hear new evidence, Mr. Ford could theoretically end up on the witness stand. But Mr. Siegel said that’s unlikely, noting that in most cases, there’s little direct testimony.
With files from Kirk Makin