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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford wipes his forehead as he speaks at the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. Toronto's mayor is waiting on a provincial judge to determine whether a conflict-of-interest case will cost him his job.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Toronto's mayor is emphasizing his dedication to underprivileged high-school athletes to deflect questions about his use of taxpayer-funded employees and cell phones to help run his football squads.

Rob Ford trumpeted his work as a volunteer coach and derided as "cowards" anyone who would hypothetically criticize his staff in an official statement Wednesday. But neither the mayor nor his spokesman directly addressed the questions raised in a Globe and Mail story – namely, why the mayor has had at least three "special assistants" in his office, including former university quarterback Andrew Gillis, help administer and coach his football teams.

"I'm okay if Councillors want to criticize me for helping kids. That's their right," the statement quotes the mayor as saying. "I'm a big guy and I can take it."

Mr. Ford's statement praised volunteerism, but did not say – as his councillor brother did earlier in the day – that his aides were volunteering on their own time when they accompanied the mayor to the gridiron during office hours.

Instead, the statement seemed to suggest that was part of their jobs. "As Mayor of Toronto, Mayor Ford is accompanied by one or more of his staff members at most times, in order to assist him in his official duties."

The statement provided no explanation for why two of the mayor's aides listed their city-issued cell phones as contacts on the Facebook page for the Rexdale Raiders, the summer squads Mr. Ford founded after becoming mayor.

Before the statement was issued, Councillor Doug Ford called The Globe to say the mayor's office employees who are helping with his brother's football programs are doing so as "volunteers."

"This is on their own time, after 40 hours," the councillor said. "Rob doesn't force anyone to work on city time."

Reporters were left to parse the councillor's comments and the official statement after the mayor did a lone television interview in his office, then left to coach football practice without taking questions.

After practice at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School field in Etobicoke, he hurried from the field surrounded by the football team. "I have no comment," he said as he squeezed into the driver's seat, while players blocked reporters from the mayor. Mr. Ford backed out while the players cheered.

Meantime, councillors slammed Mr. Ford's apparent misuse of city resources – not his penchant for helping kids – and predicted the integrity commissioner will eventually investigate the matter. (A spokeswoman for the integrity commissioner said her office does not confirm complaints or investigations until findings are made public.)

"It is disrespectful of taxpayers as far as I am concerned," said Gloria Lindsay Luby, a fiscally conservative councillor from Etobicoke. "I am not happy with it and that's not what I bought into as a taxpayer and a resident of this city."

Joe Mihvec, a left-leaning councillor from mid-town, called the mayor's use of city resources "clearly inappropriate."

"I think the bigger picture is, he loves football. That's his priority," Mr. Mihevc said. "When he has a choice between a football event and City Hall obligation, he chooses football. That's the big concern."

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday defended Mr. Ford, saying the mayor has been unfairly subjected to harsher media scrutiny than his predecessors.

That echoed Councillor Ford's take.

"This is all about two things: Rob Ford and football," he said. "If it was the tree-huggers or whatever, you wouldn't care."

He vowed to take a tougher stance with the media, particularly The Globe and Mail.

"I'm changing my rules," he said. "Every time you guys go after Rob, I'm going after you."