The restaurateur who is suing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for defamation is either a small businessman forced to defend his reputation in court or a man out to silence Mr. Ford with “tactical litigation” – depending, of course, on whose lawyer you ask.
The trial in a $6-million lawsuit against the mayor got under way on Tuesday with lawyers for each side presenting their radically different takes on why George Foulidis, 53, decided to sue Mr. Ford for suggesting in 2010 that his Boardwalk Café’s sole-sourced lease with the city smacked of civic corruption.
“Mr. Ford’s office has made statements in the press that this case is about politics. They have gone so far as to suggest that my law firm has some sort of agenda to attack Mayor Ford. This case is not about politics,” Brian Shiller, Mr. Foulidis’s lawyer, told the court. “My firm seeks to represent its client for the sole purpose of putting forward his legitimate claim. Suggestions to the contrary are nothing more than baseless rhetoric.”
Gavin Tighe, the mayor’s lawyer, countered that Mr. Foulidis sought to suppress legitimate public debate when he publicly threatened to sue Mr. Ford about two months before the Etobicoke councillor swept to the city’s top post on Oct. 25, 2010.
“I put it to your honour that this was a classic case of tactical litigation,” Mr. Tighe said. “It remains that to this day.”
Mr. Ford, dressed in a dark suit and red tie, sat quietly at a desk in the courtroom all day Tuesday.
It is not clear when the mayor will testify because both sides have agreed to work around his scheduling conflicts Wednesday and Thursday afternoon.
The high-school football team Mr. Ford coaches has practice Wednesday and plays in the city championship Thursday at 2 p.m.
The mayor’s press secretary did not respond to a question about whether football is the conflict that will keep the mayor out of court on those afternoons.
In his opening argument, Mr. Shiller argued that Mr. Ford defamed Mr. Foulidis in comments he made to the Toronto Sun’s editorial board in August of 2010.
While plenty of public officials and pundits questioned council’s decision to extend by 20 years the city’s lease arrangement with Tuggs Inc. – Mr. Foulidis’s company – Mr. Shiller said only Mr. Ford labelled it corruption.
“In fact, the evidence will show that the only individual to use the word corruption when discussing the contract between the city and Tuggs Inc. was Mr. Ford,” Mr. Shiller told the court.
He called the then-councillor’s allegations against Mr. Foulidis “serious and unsubstantiated.”
Mr. Tighe countered that the Toronto Sun story on which the case hinges does not actually quote Mr. Ford saying the word corruption. Instead, the suggestion is paraphrased, followed by the mayor’s quote that “if Tuggs isn’t, I don’t know what is.”
The tape of the editorial board meeting has since been erased, the court heard.
Ms. Tighe pointed out that Mr. Ford did not criticize Mr. Foulidis by name. Mr. Ford’s criticism was aimed at council, its practices and the deal itself, Mr. Tighe said.
“Ford’s evidence will be he didn’t know Foulidis at all,” Mr. Tighe told the court. “He knew about the Tuggs deal. He knew about Tuggs Incorporated, but he had no knowledge, conscious knowledge, of who George Foulidis was, frankly from any other guy on the street.”
Mr. Foulidis, the first to testify in the case, is also suing Bruce Baker, a former candidate for city council. The cases are being tried together and Mr. Foulidis testified on the Baker matter Tuesday. He is scheduled to testify about Mr. Ford’s remarks Wednesday.
Mr. Shiller has summoned a series of high-profile witnesses to appear in the case, including former mayor David Miller, current Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, council Speaker Frances Nunziata and radio hosts Jerry Agar and John Tory.
Mr. Shiller said Tuesday he hoped not to have to draw from that list of potential witnesses, but that depends on how the testimony unfolds.