An Ontario judge has delivered a major blow to Mayor Rob Ford’s attempts to block a full forensic investigation into his 2010 election campaign finances.
In a ruling released Thursday, Ontario justice Richard Schneider set aside the mayor’s bid to have an appeal court preside over an entirely new hearing, with fresh evidence, to determine whether there are reasonable grounds for a compliance audit.
Toronto council’s three-person compliance audit committee ordered an investigation last spring after Toronto residents Max Reed and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler launched a complaint alleging that Mr. Ford violated the Municipal Elections Act by soliciting a $77,000 loan from a family-owned holding company. The decision “is an indication that the mayor’s in this to rag the puck,” said Mr. Chaleff-Freudenthaler, adding that further delays represent a waste of public funds. “We’d like him to drop the legal games and get on with the audit.”
“The mayor has always followed the rules,” said Mr. Ford's spokesperson George Christopoulos, but declined to comment further because the case is still before the courts.
Mr. Ford’s lawyers have fought that original decision for nine months, most recently by asking the appeal court in a day-long session in January to set aside the committee’s ruling and order what amounts to a new, or “de novo,” trial.
But Justice Schneider found there’s no compelling legal reason for an appellate court to re-litigate the original complaint. He added that the committee wasn’t obliged to provide detailed reasons when it ordered the audit, as Mr. Ford’s lawyers argued. He also likened the compliance audit committee decisions to search warrant orders issued by justices of the peace, who are only obliged to determine whether there are reasonable grounds to proceed.
Unless Mr. Ford opts to appeal Thursday’s ruling to a higher court, which could add months to the process, Justice Schneider will proceed in early April with a hearing to assess the record of the compliance audit committee’s original decision to order the forensic review, with an eye to determining whether the members acted reasonably or correctly – the standards typically used for appeals.
The original complaint arose from a Globe and Mail investigation into Mr. Ford’s election disclosure documents. It found that Doug Ford Holdings, which owns the family’s printing business, had covered the cost of early campaign expenses, including a well-attended launch party at the Toronto Congress Centre.
In order to maintain a level playing field, the Municipal Elections Act requires candidates to only obtain campaign loans through recognized financial institutions. The City of Toronto’s own rules further state that council candidates may not solicit donations, in cash or in kind, from corporations or trade unions.
Mr. Ford, through his lawyers, has characterized the family holding company as a supplier of goods and services to the campaign. Documents subsequently filed with city election officials show that the campaign did repay the family holding company about a year later, after a major all-candidate fundraiser in January, 2011.
Special to the Globe and Mail
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