In an act that some say amounts to selling access to the city's highest office, Mayor Rob Ford's campaign auctioned off a meeting with him to a businessman once found by a civil court to have misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The revelation Wednesday came as the full list of the mayor's campaign donors was posted online, demonstrating that, although he raised much of his war chest from small contributions, he also garnered money from big-name developers, high-level politicians and the heads of companies holding city contracts.
On Feb. 4, Mr. Ford met with Johnathan Vrozos, who donated $2,000 to the mayor's election campaign in two tranches. Mr. Ford said Mr. Vrozos bought the meeting at a fundraising golf tournament.
"We fundraised money for my campaign, so if someone bids on it I don't check their background, and I went out to lunch like I had to commit to," he said in a brief scrum at City Hall. "And that's it."
He ignored further questions from reporters, and neither he nor his office provided details of the meeting or auction, save to say the fundraiser happened before the Oct. 25 election.
His press secretary, Adrienne Batra, responded with a brief e-mail: "… any suggestion of wrongdoing is ridiculous."
Mr. Ford's critics, however, said he should have looked into Mr. Vrozos's past before agreeing to meet with him.
A judge last year ruled that Mr. Vrozos, an entertainment impresario and onetime bar owner, had defrauded Wahta, an aboriginal organization that supplied bottled water at a Rolling Stones concert in July of 2003.
Mr. Vrozos had the rights to provide water for the show, which was meant to boost Toronto's flagging tourist industry after the SARS scare. He sold the contract to Wahta, but then cut side deals with other suppliers, the judge found. On one occasion, the judge wrote, Mr. Vrozos also took Wahta's cash from the bottled-water sales.
"He had no authorization for this," the court ruled. "The weight of the money was so great that apparently the rear end of Vrozos's car was barely off the ground, as he drove away."
Mr. Vrozos never gave back $478,000 of that amount, the court said.
That same year, he was alleged to have paid police union head Rick McIntosh and then-constable William McCormack for help obtaining a liquor licence for his Entertainment District bar. Mr. Vrozos faced no charges in the incident, but was expected to testify at the trial of Mr. McIntosh and Mr. McCormack. The charges against them were thrown out over procedural delays.
Mr. Vrozos, who is listed as president of Zos International Corporation, a Mississauga consulting firm, did not respond to The Globe's request for comment.
Robert MacDermid, a political scientist at York University and campaign finance expert, said fundraising techniques that involve paying to socialize with politicians are fairly commonplace.
"I think if you put it to most citizens, this appears to be selling access," he said. "You shouldn't be paying a charge to see the leader."
Councillor Adam Vaughan, Mr. Ford's political archrival, argues against the practice and questioned the mayor's apparent shrugging-off of the incident.
"I don't think he's done anything horrific, but I think he needs to be a bit more careful," he said. "He has a propensity for wandering into these grey areas, and not caring."
Along with Mr. Vrozos, the mayor's list of donors bears many recognizable names.
He received donations from political operatives including former premier Mike Harris, Mr. Harris's campaign manager, Leslie Noble, federal media relations figure Alykhan Velshi and Tory fundraiser Jim Ginou.
Mr. Ginou, who worked on the abortive mayoral bid of Rocco Rossi, later helped raise money for Mr. Ford.
"I just called a few friends of mine and said 'you should donate to him,' " he said.
Mr. Ford also received donations from former provincial PC leader John Tory and Ralph Lean, who fundraised for George Smitherman. Both men donated at the Harmony Dinner, a benefit co-hosted by Mr. Tory, who did not endorse any candidate for mayor, to help candidates pay off campaign debts.
Mr. Ford's donors also included property developers, who frequently donate to political campaigns, as well as John Long, the head of city-contracted Downtown Towing.
With a report from Marcus Gee