Toronto’s Catholic school board is reviewing how it vets volunteers and a youth league will discuss possible repercussions after the revelation that one of Mayor Rob Ford’s hand-picked football coaches has a violent history.
Payman Aboodowleh was a long-time volunteer with Mr. Ford’s football staff at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School until the mayor was banned from coaching at the board’s schools in May. He also served as an assistant coach with the Ontario Minor Football League’s Rexdale Raiders – a youth team that Mr. Ford founded.
Mr. Aboodowleh’s role with the minor league will be examined at a meeting in November, said league president Dan Ralph. He was unaware of Mr. Aboodowleh’s criminal history, which includes assaulting a peace officer, assaulting a sibling and breaking and entering, until revealed in The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.
“This is something that is fairly significant,” Mr. Ralph said. “Being a former coach myself, I would be very, very concerned about another coach with a criminal record being involved with young players.”
Years before Mr. Aboodowleh, 38, became a coach, he was an enforcer for Alessandro “Sandro” Lisi, one of the figures in the illegal drug scandal that has dogged Mr. Ford’s administration, several sources familiar with the Etobicoke drug scene have told The Globe. The mayor has faced repeated questions about the people he surrounds himself with, including from members of his own executive, since reports emerged in May of an alleged video of the mayor purportedly smoking crack cocaine. The mayor has said “I do not use crack cocaine.”
Mr. Aboodowleh, who said he has known Mr. Ford for about 30 years, denied assaulting anyone on behalf of Mr. Lisi, but acknowledged they were long-time associates. Mr. Lisi, a friend of the mayor and his occasional driver, was arrested last week in a marijuana-trafficking sting that police say is part of a broader police probe examining some of the mayor’s associates.
At City Hall on Wednesday, the mayor refused to comment on his relationship with Mr. Aboodowleh. His brother, Councillor Doug Ford, said the media should focus on other issues. “You guys are worried about the mayor’s friends or associates or whatever? Give me a break,” he said, adding he hadn’t read The Globe report.
Going by the name Peter Payman at football practices and on Facebook, Mr. Aboodowleh never disclosed his criminal past to Don Bosco school officials, said John Yan, a spokesman for the Catholic school board. If the board had been aware of Mr. Aboodowleh’s convictions, he would not have been allowed to coach students, Mr. Yan said. The board is now reviewing its process for screening volunteers.
“Obviously, we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Yan said. “Safety is our first priority and we want to make sure that whatever process and protocol is in place, that it’s as stringent as possible.”
Mr. Aboodowleh’s 2012 police reference check came back clear and did not pick up his criminal convictions because, according to Toronto police, an incorrect surname was submitted. The ‘L’ in Aboodowleh was replaced with an ‘I’ to make it Aboodowieh. The school board said Mr. Aboodowleh filled out the background-check form and submitted it to police.
Mr. Aboodowleh’s application was witnessed by the principal of Don Bosco at the time. However, the principal does not recall whether he verified Mr. Aboodowleh’s name, Mr. Yan said. Many principals had believed police checked a volunteer’s identification, Mr. Yan added.
However, Toronto police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray said police expect school boards to verify identifications before requests for background checks are submitted.
Concerns about Mr. Aboodowleh’s behaviour on the football field surfaced in 2011. In the second week of September, he had a “nose-to-nose altercation” with a Don Bosco player during practice, Mr. Yan said. The incident prompted the principal to turf Mr. Aboodowleh as a volunteer.
“It was felt that it would be better for all sides concerned that he not return for the rest of the season,” Mr. Yan said.
The mayor requested Mr. Aboodowleh return to Don Bosco in 2012. The principal agreed after consulting the superintendent, Mr. Yan said.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Aboodowleh was screened for a criminal history in his earlier years at Don Bosco. The school board keeps only the past year’s police reference check on file, while the Toronto police keep two years’ worth of checks.
A police screening for Mr. Aboodowleh was started in 2011, but never completed. The 2011 application included Mr. Aboodowleh’s correct surname, Ms. Gray said. The background check was halted after Mr. Aboodowleh failed to respond to a request for further information.
Mr. Ralph, president of the Ontario Minor Football League, said the league issued a warning to Mr. Aboodowleh this past summer after two people complained about his conduct during a game. Mr. Aboodowleh was hurling “loud, colourful language” at players and referees, Mr. Ralph said.
Tory insider and lawyer Ralph Lean said he finds the mayor’s choice of friends concerning, although he added he still supports Mr. Ford’s bid for re-election.
“The economic record for me is really, really important,” Mr. Lean said. “That’s what a mayor is elected to do, but I am bothered by the other stuff.”
With reports from Greg McArthur and Patrick White
Kaleigh Rogers is a freelance writer