As a councillor and mayor, Rob Ford fought against a ban on plastic water bottles; he helped an Etobicoke businessman get a seat on a city board; and he urged councillors to fast-track a controversial plan to expand Toronto’s island airport.
In his other role, as part owner of Deco Labels and Tags, Mr. Ford counted among his clients: bottled-water manufacturers Nestlé Canada and Coca-Cola; an architecture and design company owned by Darius Mosun, who was appointed to the Toronto Parking Authority; and Porter Airlines, the regional carrier campaigning for permission to fly long-haul jets out of Billy Bishop Airport.
In each case, the contracts for the family business have been small in terms of dollars. But at city hall, the stakes have been high. These previously undisclosed relationships raise further questions about the extent to which Deco’s interests have been a factor at city hall. In an ongoing investigation, The Globe and Mail has revealed instances in which the Fords have advocated for their clients with city staff.
Last month, the mayor was asked about Deco’s relationship with RR Donnelley and Sons, a commercial printing giant that pays Deco to print airline tags. In 2011, the Fords helped several Donnelley executives lobby the city’s top purchasing official regarding the city’s $9-million in-house printing division.
“If that’s a conflict, then I’m going to have a conflict with almost every business or every person in this city, because we’ve been around for 52 years. We’ve dealt from those little ma-and-pa shops to huge grocery stores to almost every company. So I guess I’m in a conflict,” Mr. Ford said. “I’d have to declare a conflict with everybody.”
Deco Labels’ Canadian office has more than a thousand accounts on file, according to an internal company client list that was reviewed by The Globe. Deco clients include major Canadian brands, banks, small businesses, charities, hospitals and government departments. Also included on this list are a handful of companies that have tried to influence policy decisions at city hall in recent years.
At city hall, revelations about Donnelley and another client, Apollo Health and Beauty Care, have sparked probes by Toronto’s Integrity Commissioner and revived calls for the Ontario government to modernize and clarify the conflict-of-interest laws that govern municipal officials. It’s been three years since Justice Douglas Cunningham recommended that the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act be expanded as part of his inquiry into Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion and her support of a development company that was partly owned by her son.
In an interview, William McDowell, who served as chief commission counsel to the inquiry, said the provincial government needs to act on the justice’s recommendations.
“We need better and clearer rules about when you as a councillor can put your thumb on the scale at council … on behalf of companies in which you have an interest of any kind,” Mr. McDowell said.
There is no law that requires the Fords to place their business in a blind trust, a mechanism that other politicians, such as former prime minister Paul Martin, have used to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The laws around what the Ford brothers must disclose about Deco’s clients are murky. Municipal elected officials aren’t required to volunteer their private business relationships. However, according to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, city councillors are expected to recuse themselves from votes and debates at council in which they have a direct or indirect pecuniary interest.
In a letter, a lawyer for Deco, Gavin Tighe, said Mayor Ford and Councillor Doug Ford are not in a conflict of interest, “as defined in the legislation.”
Because Deco is a private corporation, its finances are not made public, which makes it difficult to determine whether the Fords’ conduct as elected officials intersects with their business interests. Interviews with former employees and a review of an internal client list shows there are examples of overlap between the needs and wants of Deco’s clients, and the positions taken by the Fords on matters before council.