Toronto’s mayor has admitted for the first time that if he had the chance to do it over again he would not have cast the vote that landed him in court and put his job in jeopardy.
“Now, if someone would’ve told me that, that I’d be here, obviously I would have, in retrospect, I probably would have probably not voted,” Rob Ford testified Wednesday.
“I would have declared a conflict like I have every other time. But now that we’re here, I’m here. I can’t change what happened.”
Mr. Ford made the concession under nearly four hours of cross-examination from Clayton Ruby, the prominent lawyer who is representing Paul Magder, a Toronto resident trying to force the mayor from office for allegedly breaching the Municipal Conflict-of-Interest Act (MCIA). The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Ford broke the act when he voted to let himself off the hook for failing to repay $3,150 in improper donations to his football foundation.
It appeared to be a climbdown from Mr. Ford’s public insistence in recent radio interviews that he did nothing wrong, and only spoke on Feb. 7 to defend the good works of a private charity that buys football equipment for poor high schools.
Mr. Ford’s testimony – a rare open-court appearance for a sitting politician – attracted a packed courtroom of reporters, friends, foes and curious observers.
All were there to see how the controversial mayor of Canada’s largest city would defend himself against a lawsuit that, if successful, will see him automatically turfed from office and possibly banned from running again for up to seven years.
Although Mr. Ford granted he would have changed his vote if his staff or the city solicitor had told him to do so, he did not budge from his novel explanation of why he decided to speak and vote in February.
In a court appearance otherwise marked by contradictions and lapses in memory, Mr. Ford said again and again that he has always believed a council member only has to declare a conflict if both the elected official and the municipality stand to “benefit.”
Mr. Ford argued that since he alone stood to reap a financial benefit when he cast his vote Feb. 7 – the vote freed him from paying $3,150 out of his own pocket – he was not breaking the rules.
“Like I said, for the last 13 years, I’ve always defined a conflict of interest that there’s two parties. There’s a benefit to the city or the member of council. And that’s when I declared a conflict,” Mr. Ford said.
When Mr. Ruby pointed out that neither the MCIA nor the council handbook define a conflict that way, Mr. Ford said he had not read either document.
He added that he skipped his council orientation in 2000 because, as the son of an MPP, he already understood how city hall functioned.
Mr. Ford’s understanding of a conflict of interest is key because it will form part of a defence that the mayor made an “honest error of judgment,” when he spoke and voted.
However, Alan Lenczner, the mayor’s lawyer, told the court Wednesday morning that he intends to rely primarily on technical legal arguments, meaning the “honest error” line will likely serve as a fallback.
Mr. Ruby spent much of the afternoon trying to undermine Mr. Ford’s claim that his mistake was an “honest” one.
“I suggest to you that successive integrity commissioners have been looking into your affairs, finding you committed wrong-doing and that you, in fact, had resolved that you’re just not going to give in any longer to these integrity commissioners,” Mr. Ruby said.
“You’re going to fight them back and that’s what motivated you to vote and speak on Feb. 7. Is that true?
“Absolutely false,” Mr. Ford replied.
In a bid to further undermine the honest-error defence, Mr. Ruby raised two previous cases where Mr. Ford declared a conflict, but the city did not clearly “benefit.”
In March 2011, when council was debating whether to appoint the mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, or one of the mayor’s opponents, Councillor Shelley Carroll, to a subcommittee of the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, the mayor declared a conflict and recused himself.
“Why is this not inconsistent with the view you expressed? Because I can see no financial benefit for the city about whether it’s Shelley Carroll who’s appointed or your brother who’s appointed,” Mr. Ruby asked.
“No, I disagree with that,” Mr. Ford replied.
“Explain it to me,” Mr. Ruby said.
“My brother would be more fiscally responsible than Shelley Carroll,” the mayor said, prompting a loud burst of laughter from the public gallery.
In the second case, Mr. Ruby played a video of Mr. Ford declaring a conflict in May of 2010 because he was the subject of an integrity commissioner’s report recommending he be reprimanded for disclosing confidential information about a city real-estate transaction.
“On that day, you understood the simple principle, if the report is about Rob Ford, you can’t take part in the debate, yes?” Mr. Ruby asked.
“No,” Ford replied.
“What part of that didn’t you understand?”
“I was advised by council that I had a conflict.”
“I heard your voice [in the video].”
“I heard you speak the words.”
“Did you understand the words as you were speaking?”
“No. My interpretation of a conflict of interest, again, is it takes two parties and the city must benefit or a member of council must benefit. Again, I don’t know exactly what the reason was, but I’m sure there was, according to my rationale, a conflict. So I declared it.”
At the end of his day in court, the mayor squeezed through a throng of cameras and microphones to hop into a black SUV driven by his brother. He did not take questions.
The legal hearing is scheduled to resume Thursday morning with lawyers for both sides making their final submissions to Mr. Justice Charles Hackland, the Ottawa judge brought in to oversee the case.