Corruption is a strong word. Before you call someone or something corrupt, you had better have evidence. But as we learned in a University Avenue courtroom on Friday, Mayor Rob Ford had not a shred, not a scrap, not a scintilla of proof when he used the word to describe a restaurant lease deal in 2010.
Mr. Ford told the Toronto Sun editorial board that the deal was an example of “corruption and skulduggery.” On what basis? Did he have incriminating documents perhaps? Did he know of payoffs? Could he show that a councillor’s vote had been bought or a civil servant’s opinion improperly influenced?
“Did I see someone get a brown envelope of cash? No,” he conceded under questioning. But – wait for it now – lots of people were telling him that “the deal was a dirty deal.” People who called him on the phone, you see. What people? He didn’t know. They called anonymously.
“There was a lot of rumours going around saying this deal didn’t smell right,” he said at one point in his testimony. “There were a lot of innuendoes,” he said at another. “A lot of people were saying the deal stinks to high heaven,” he said at yet another. “That was the terminology going around.”
He could not “pinpoint” the corruption, but “it smells that way, it just looks that way.” But do you have any evidence at all to prove it was corrupt, pressed lawyer Brian Shiller. “I believed it,” replied the mayor.
Mr. Ford insists he never meant to “cast aspersions” on George Foulidis, the lakefront restaurant owner who launched the $6-million libel suit against him. What struck him as corrupt instead was “the process” that led city council to sign the deal. “Not following the process is corrupt,” he told the court, which was pretty rich coming from a guy who has been upbraided over and over for breaking the rules at city council.
But why does he say the process was crooked? Because city council carried out some of its deliberations behind closed doors? Mr. Ford says a lot of horse-trading goes on in those sessions, and he doesn’t like it. But council often has good reason for going in camera: to discuss legal matters, contracts or sensitive negotiations. The Boardwalk Pub deal was one of them. Council met many times in public over the deal, as well, so no one can call it a secret.
Because council renewed Mr. Foulidis’s lease without opening it up to competing bids? Sole-source contracts are not always bad and certainly not always corrupt. Mr. Ford himself voted to start talks with another company on a sole-source deal for food concessions in the western beaches and High Park. Council decided not to open up the Boardwalk Pub deal to bids partly because it wanted to have a local businessman get the business instead of seeing a big fast-food chain come in. That was a controversial decision, but there is nothing to suggest graft was involved.
Because Mr. Foulidis had sometimes contributed to the election campaign of the local councillor, Sandra Bussin? Mr. Ford found that fishy, but he admitted on the stand that he himself sometimes agrees to help to people who contribute to his election campaign.
If the judge accepts that Mr. Ford was attacking the process, not the person, he may escape having to pay libel damages to Mr. Foulidis for blackening his reputation. But does it make what Mr. Ford said any better?
By calling the deal corrupt without a crumb of evidence, he smeared all of city council and its 44 members. What is more, he did it with clear political intent. His attack on the Boardwalk Pub deal was a centrepiece of his successful campaign for mayor in 2010. The baseless insinuations spread by Mr. Ford and his allies boosted his campaign and led directly to the defeat of Ms. Bussin, with poor Mr. Foulidis as collateral damage.
The Ford campaign portrayed city hall as a swamp of waste, inefficiency and sweetheart deals and city councillors as self-serving knaves who throw themselves lavish parties and squander taxpayer money on rented bunny suits. The result was a crude caricature of municipal government and those who work in it.
You can call city councillors a lot of things. Some are lazy, others are blowhards, others simply nitwits. You can call city hall a lot of things, too. Wasteful, if you like. Bureaucratic, sure. But corrupt? You’d better have proof.