It was inevitable that someone in André Marin's job, with his personality, would make lots of enemies.
The Ontario Ombudsman's mistake was giving them ammunition.
The expenditures reported by The Globe and Mail are not hanging offences. They mostly seem defensible under the rules governing his conduct, even if he largely set those rules for himself. One could reasonably argue that they're a small price to pay in return for a job generally well done.
But when you're holding everyone else to a very high standard and antagonizing a good number of people in the process, it's not enough for your behaviour to be defensible. You need it to be beyond reproach.
Mr. Marin had to know that. And he had to know that as his first five-year term expired, there would be a lot of people - from politicians and senior bureaucrats to disgruntled former employees - looking to ensure he wouldn't get a second one. Particularly given the high volume of turnover in his office, he should have assumed that anything and everything he did could be thrown back at him, and governed himself accordingly.
What was he doing, then, buying his shaving cream and hair gel and body wash at public expense? How did it seem a good idea to expense martinis consumed by him and one of his employees while they were on the road? And why was his office paying for a new flat-screen TV at his Ottawa home at public expense, when his arrangement was meant to cover only his living expenses while he was in Toronto?
Mr. Marin is absolutely right that this is "Mickey Mouse stuff." It's pretty marginal, next to the important work he's spent the past half-decade on.
But however unjustly, Mickey Mouse stuff often proves the most problematic for public officials. In an era when there's a premium on restraint, there's no better way to sink your well-paid political (or bureaucratic) nemeses than by showing that they're nickel-and-diming taxpayers. And when someone making upwards of $200,000 a year is paying for his personal grooming products with the company card, that's the obvious impression.
Dalton McGuinty's Liberals plainly intend to replace Mr. Marin, to the delight of various ministers and senior civil servants who've felt his wrath. But since it was reported in The Globe last Friday that the cross-partisan committee tasked with choosing the best person for the job had reached a stalemate, there's been growing pressure on the government to give Mr. Marin another five years.
In the last few days, it's begun to look as though the easiest thing for the Liberals would be to just reverse course and keep Mr. Marin around. But the expense story could seal his fate, because it puts the opposition in a slightly awkward position.
These are the same parties that a year ago jumped all over revelations about eHealth Ontario consultants expensing muffins and Choco Bites. That scandal, of course, involved much more serious questions about untendered contracts. But it's fair to say that under different circumstances, the Conservatives - and to a lesser extent the NDP - would pounce on an opportunity to paint a Liberal appointee as living high off the hog.
Now, they have to make a decision whether to apply a different standard because they appreciate the work that Mr. Marin has been doing, or else throw him under the bus.
Either way, the questions about Mr. Marin's judgment may give some cover when it comes to replacing him.
It would be an unfortunate end to a controversial term that should be judged on its merits - a debate that would have plenty of strong arguments on either side. But in the current political environment, that's not quite how it works. It's odd that someone as politically savvy as Mr. Marin has left himself so vulnerable.