The mayor of Canada's largest city is mired in scandal after allegations of drug use exploded into an international media sensation, causing frustration among his peers at city hall who say they are fed up with the unwelcome attention.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who has battled allegations of substance abuse in the past, is now facing reports that he was caught on video smoking crack cocaine.
Mr. Ford dismissed the allegations as "ridiculous," though he did not answer questions about the authenticity of the video, which has not been shown to the public.
News of the video, said to have been surreptitiously taken by smartphone within the past six months, has gone viral even though its contents have never been released. And the individuals who took the footage, reportedly drug dealers who are attempting to sell it to media for up to $200,000, have never been identified by name.
First elected in a 2000 as a city councillor for Etobicoke, Mr. Ford has made his interactions with the common folk part of his appeal. While his home is in a leafy neighbourhood with large suburban homes, areas to the north are known for their gangs and drug trade, and the mayor has not been afraid to venture there.
For years he has volunteered as a high-school football coach, often proclaiming that his efforts have helped steer youth away from the drugs and crime centred in some of the area's housing projects.
According to the Toronto Star, the crack-cocaine video was allegedly filmed at an apartment complex at Kipling Avenue and Dixon Road, an area a few kilometres from Mr. Ford's current and familial home.
A convenience store owner at the intersection said Friday that Mr. Ford has been to her shop "many, many times" in the past to buy cans of Coke, and that she last saw him about 10 days ago. "He's a nice guy. I don't want to make trouble," she said, requesting she not be identified.
Mr. Ford's family circle includes people who have long battled addiction.
His sister, Kathy, has been convicted of several drug charges and, in 2012, her long-time boyfriend, a convicted cocaine dealer, was arrested after he arrived at Mr. Ford's home and allegedly threatened to kill him. In 1999, Mr. Ford pleaded guilty to drunk driving in Florida as police claimed to have also recovered a small amount of marijuana from his vehicle.
News of the alleged crack-cocaine video first broke on Gawker, a U.S. website, Thursday evening. The Toronto Star ran its own account of the video on Friday morning. Brokers for the video had arranged separate meetings with these reporters in recent weeks, showing them the video on a camera phone, but not relinquishing it.
While demanding vast sums of money, these unidentified intermediaries provided the reporters a photograph of the mayor embracing two seeming hoodlums in hoodies.
One of the photographed individuals was identified as a young man shot dead outside a downtown night club this spring. That man is believed to be Anthony Smith, a 21-year-old killed in March. (A source confirmed to The Globe the man pictured with Mr. Ford was Mr. Smith.)
Police won't say whether they are investigating any of the parties involved. "We are monitoring the situation closely," said Mark Pugash, a spokesman the Toronto Police Service, without elaborating.
But because neither media organization paid money for the video, it remains under wraps. Gawker says it still hopes to raise the funds – within 24 hours of reporting the story, it had raised more than $33,000 in donations from the public toward its eventual acquisition.
Despite the absence of footage that can be broadcast as hard proof, the story of a mayor allegedly caught using crack cocaine has proven immensely popular.
Mr. Ford is now drawing unflattering comparisons to Marion Barry, the 1980s Washington mayor caught buying crack in an FBI sting. Credible U.S. publications are weighing in on the story, as has a website from Taiwan that cobbles together over-the-top cartoon parodies of breaking-news events.
Though 2013 is not yet halfway over, it has been a rocky year for Mr. Ford. Early this spring, former mayoral opponent Sarah Thomson accused him of grabbing her bottom and of being intoxicated at a public event. Mr. Ford denied this.
A few weeks later, Mr. Ford was accused of having substance-abuse issues because of his behaviour at a party for members of Canada's military. He again said this was not the case.
In the past, Mr. Ford has uttered brusque denials and urged media to move on to serious issues. On Friday, he would say only: "These allegations are ridiculous."
Councillor John Parker, a former Progressive Conservative MPP, urged the mayor to address the story head-on.
"We all hope that the inferences floating around are untrue and the only one who can set us straight on that is the mayor," he said, adding the distractions that come with Mr. Ford have reached a point where "nothing seems to shock any of us around here any more."
Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother and most vocal defender, could not be reached for comment Friday.