Long before he became widely known as Ontario's most influential lobbyist and then a key player in a notorious procurement scandal that rocked Toronto City Hall in the early 2000s, Jeffery Lyons was a lawyer forging his reputation as a consumer liability crusader who recognized how the threat of class-action lawsuits, then an American specialty, might change Canada's legal landscape.
It was the early 1970s, and the Hamilton-born lawyer and Tory fundraiser had taken on a case representing more than 4,600 owners of a dodgy General Motors compact car known as the Firenza. The vehicles manufactured in 1971 and 1972 suffered from steering and brake deficiencies, fuel line leaks, faulty transmissions and drive shaft malfunctions.
The U.S. car industry in the 1960s had to defend itself against massive liability lawsuits, which led to drastic changes in warranties and new consumer protection laws. Mr. Lyons's long-time friend Paul Godfrey, former Metro Toronto chairman who is now president and CEO of Postmedia, joked that with that case, he was becoming Canada's Ralph Nader. (Mr. Nader wrote the 1965 book Unsafe At Any Speed, a blistering critique of the auto industry that singled out the Chevrolet Corvair for its poor safety record.)
The problem for Mr. Lyons was that outside Quebec, provincial laws didn't permit class-action lawsuits. Undaunted, he pressed ahead – the GM lawsuit was Canada's first consumer class action – and won a few key lower court victories before the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously grounded his gambit in 1983.
By then, Mr. Lyons had taken on, as clients, the owners of Ford vehicles prone to rusting. But he advised them to press their case in the court of public opinion instead of getting drawn into a costly legal battle with a deep-pocketed multinational. It proved to be savvy advice, and the carmaker offered compensation. The Ontario government, meantime, tabled legislation allowing class-action lawsuits.
Mr. Lyons died on July 26 after suffering a heart attack while out for a jog near his cottage in Jackson's Point, Ont. "He was lean and athletic and worked out," says Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy, Mr. Lyons's niece. "It was just one of those things – very sudden and sad." He was 75.
Besides paving the way for consumer lawsuits, Mr. Lyons's legacy is complex.
By the mid-1980s, Mr. Lyons had built not only a formidable legal reputation – a Queen's Counsel, he served as a bencher for the Law Society of Upper Canada from 1983 to 1991 – but also a client list that included all sorts of firms that wanted to do business with government.
Thanks to his extensive contacts in both the Conservative and Liberal parties – his law partner was a powerful Liberal backroom operative named David Smith – Mr. Lyons was known as an "expediter," as an admiring 1986 Metro Toronto Business Journal article put it.
"He was the go-to guy in the municipal consulting world," says Bruce Davis, a rival Liberal lobbyist and former school trustee, who adds that Mr. Lyons was always "classy" and "gentlemanly to a fault."
Yet his vast network of political, business and personal affiliations began to blur, and Mr. Lyons also came to be known as someone who worked both sides of the political street – helping candidates raise impressive sums for their war chests and then turning around to lobby those same politicians on behalf of corporate clients seeking government business.
After details of an opaque computer leasing deal approved by Toronto City Council in 1999 came to light, his approach to public business was subjected to intense scrutiny during a $19-million public inquiry. "Rather than educating his clients about the city's processes, giving strategic advice, and advocating their products, Jeffery Lyons was essentially an influence peddler," wrote Justice Denise Bellamy in the inquiry's hard-hitting final report.
Jeffery Lyons was born in Hamilton on May 6, 1940, the second child of Irwin and Frances Lyons. His father owned a chain of supermarkets, Lyons Food Mart, which he later sold to IGA. Irwin had an entrepreneurial bent and a conservative outlook, recalls Ms. Levy, whose mother, Judy, is Mr. Lyons's older sister, "It was in the family's roots," she says, noting that Irwin was a product of the Depression.
Mr. Lyons studied law at the University of Toronto, but made his most important and enduring connections through his participation in the Young Progressive Conservative association. "He was a rising star in Conservative politics," says Mr. Godfrey, who met the young, lanky activist at a YPC function and promptly asked him to help on his first municipal campaign, for North York alderman in 1964.
Mr. Godfrey went on to become one of the city's top power brokers, and Mr. Lyons emerged as an indefatigable fundraiser. He brought in an unprecedented $1-million in donations for Toronto-area Tory candidates in the 1979 federal election, which saw Joe Clark, another friend, win a short-lived minority government. When Mel Lastman, the long-time mayor of North York, ran to lead the amalgamated City of Toronto in 1997, he also tapped Mr. Lyons to chair his campaign.
As far back as the late 1970s, there had been speculation that Mr. Lyons might seek public office. "You can't be in public life and not be tempted," he told The Toronto Star in 1987. But, as Ms. Levy explains, he preferred to work the backrooms. "He was a good schmoozer. He liked to be the guy putting people together."
For his efforts, Mr. Lyons's political allies made sure he was rewarded with appointments to high-profile public bodies. He served as chair of the Toronto Transit Commission in the 1980s and later sat on the Toronto Police Services Board after amalgamation. There, he discovered that politics had a bloody side.
During a confrontational and vaguely menacing pressure campaign launched by the Toronto Police Association during the 2000 municipal race, Mr. Lyons, then vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, had his office swept for bugs and voiced concerns that he was being followed. "I have no confidence with what this union is doing," he said in exasperation during a testy TPSB session. "As a board, we should say, 'Enough is enough.' We should throw open the window and say, 'We're not going to take it any more.'"
At the same time, Mr. Lyons's dual role as a political fundraiser and lobbyist was garnering more scrutiny. With the Mike Harris Tories in office at Queen's Park, well-connected lobbyists – Mr. Lyons was seen as the dean of the profession – had gravitated toward large and controversial procurements, such as a Harris-backed scheme to cart the city's garbage to an abandoned mine in northern Ontario.
Mr. Lyons, according to a series of investigative articles by The Globe's former City Hall columnist John Barber, was involved with expediting land deals that saw the province's real-estate arm unload surplus properties at low prices.
All the while, he helped councillors such as Gloria Lindsay Luby, Peter Milczyn and Case Ootes raise money for their re-election campaigns. As a 1999 city hall digest item noted, he gave elected officials bottles of wine as Christmas presents, a step up from the coffee mugs filled with jelly beans from the previous year.
Mr. Lyons was also a visible presence during council meetings, and referred to himself as "Brother Jeff" – a phrase, Mr. Godfrey explains, that he adopted after visiting a Baptist service in Washington, D.C., where he was taken by the fact the congregants were in the habit of referring to one another as "brother" and "sister."
In the fall of 1999, council debated a new code of conduct, but the document didn't make mention of the role of lobbyists who sat on city boards. Left-leaning midtown councillor Joe Mihevc proposed an amendment to the policy that would preclude lobbyists from getting those kinds of appointments – an idea Mr. Lyons dismissed as "kind of petty." "Everyone can see what is happening here," he would later say of the activity of lobbyists at City Hall.
As for his political work, he told The Star, on the eve of the 2000 municipal election, "I have no hesitation in saying I supported a number of the councillors and I'm happy to give them advice on how to run their campaigns and I certainly do raise money for some councillors."
In the spring 2001, Mr. Barber penned a column quoting a Scarborough councillor, Bas Balkissoon, who had flagged an obscure item on the council agenda about a computer and photocopier leasing deal. After the article ran, Mr. Balkissoon received a voicemail from Mr. Lyons. "The lobbyist was accusing him of seeking media attention the wrong way," Justice Bellamy recounted later. "If he wanted to move ahead in his political career, this was not the way to do it. Mr. Lyons offered to get him the right kind of coverage if media attention was what he wanted."
That moment marked the beginning of a long unravelling, as journalists and councillor reformers, among them future mayor David Miller, began probing the $43-million deal. The convoluted tale that emerged involved a firm that had used its connections to Mr. Lastman and council's budget chief Tom Jakobek to steer an approval for a contract that could be dramatically expanded with little scrutiny.
The story came to involve a little-known firm called MFP; Dash Domi, the brother of Maple Leaf enforcer Tie Domi; the dispensing of Leafs tickets; bags of cash exchanged in the parking garage beneath city hall; junkets and personal connections between senior city bureaucrats and Mr. Lyons. Council eventually overruled the advice of outside legal counsel and ordered a full public inquiry, which lasted until 2004. Mr. Miller's victory in the 2003 mayoral race was built on his pledge to end the cronyism that had led to the MFP scandal.
Mr. Lyons became a focus of media scrutiny and the inquiry, facing calls for investigations by the Ontario Provincial Police and the Law Society. Even Mr. Lastman sought to distance himself: "I say hello to Jeff Lyons, I'll say goodbye to Jeff Lyons. But he has never lobbied me on anything."
While Mr. Lyons was never charged or disbarred, the inquiry's final report is withering, and details how he "bestowed favours," accepted lucrative retainers from rival firms competing for the same contract, and floated the idea of receiving a $150,000 "success fee" if the client won a nine-figure contract. The report also notes that he collected donations and then had his assistants dispense the money to council candidates under their own names, a violation of the election finance rules.
"Stripped of its folksy embellishments," Justice Bellamy wrote, "this is cronyism."
Ms. Levy prefers not to discuss the legacy of MFP. She stresses that her uncle had an "impish" sense of humour and was the first person in her family to accept her when she revealed that she was gay. When their respective spouses were out of town on holiday, she adds, they continued to get together for "dates" at a Yorkville bistro to exchange political gossip and story ideas, including ones about charities Mr. Lyons had decided to support. "He was a generous spirit."
Mr. Godfrey, for his part, notes that the MFP scandal "was quite heavy on [Mr. Lyons's] heart." Still, he insists that the controversy was politicized, and that Mr. Lyons ended up "in the middle." "After MFP, he realized that politics is a blood sport," Mr. Godfrey adds. "None of us comes away unscathed."
There's an ironic footnote to the MFP episode, which is that Mr. Lyons's role in the scandal led directly to dramatic changes in the rules governing municipal oversight.
In the aftermath, Toronto council adopted a tough code of conduct overseen by an integrity commissioner; fortified its procurement and audit policies to prevent political interference; and established a lobbyist registry, the first of its kind in Canada. Though Mr. Lyons, in the wake of MFP, set up a new consulting firm, he never worked again as a City Hall lobbyist.
He leaves his wife, Sandy; his children, Heather, Stewart and Merrill; and seven grandchildren.