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municipal politics

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford leaves the courthouse at 361 University Ave. on Sept 5, 2012. Mr. Ford is testifying in a conflict of interest case.Fred Lum

In the talking points of the mayor's allies, Rob Ford is a victim, set upon by left-wing rivals who are dragging him through the courts because they can't accept that he beat them in 2010. In fact, if he wants to find his worst enemy, the mayor need only look at the man in the shaving mirror.

Mr. Ford would never have landed in the witness box if he had followed the straightforward rules that govern how city councillors raise money. He could have listened to the Integrity Commissioner when she took him to task for the way he was asking lobbyists for donations to his private football charity. He could have followed her order to pay the donors back to the tune of $3,150 – chump change for a guy who drives a Cadillac library on wheels.

Instead he decided to brazen it out, ignoring advice, defying the rules and generally acting like a law unto himself. Now he finds himself in court with his job on the line.

For a man who does not like to be questioned and makes a poor job of explaining himself, a courtroom is not a friendly place. Under cross examination on Wednesday by one of the city's top lawyers, Clayton Ruby, he gave confused, often contradictory, testimony. At one point, he said that he approaches anyone he meets about his private football charity and asks for donations. At another, he said he usually never mentions it unless he sits down with a potential donor for a long chat.

He said he had never attended one of the orientation sessions or read the handbook briefing councillors on avoiding conflicts of interest. Nor had he ever read the law that he stands accused of breaching. Asked by Mr. Ruby what steps he had taken to understand the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, he answered simply, "None."

No wonder his grasp of the meaning of the term "conflict of interest" seemed weak. The rules say simply that a councillor must avoid voting on an issue where he had a "pecuniary" interest, however indirect. In the fateful vote in February, he voted on a motion (which passed) that excused him from paying back the $3,150 – in other words, a vote that saved him more than 3,000 bucks.

The conflict rules are in place for a good reason. If councillors approach private businesses for donations to their private charities, however worthy, the businesses may think that forking over will get them favours at city hall. One of the donors to Mr. Ford's football foundation happened to be the Woodbine business organization, an outfit that got the city to agree to big tax breaks if it builds an entertainment complex in Etobicoke, Mr. Ford's home turf.

In court, Mr. Ford tried to argue that there can only really be a conflict if both he and the city stand to benefit. The football charity, by contrast, was a "personal issue" and "it takes two parties to have a conflict." In fact, the law is clear that even if only a councillor himself stands to gain, he must avoid voting.

The impression that was left from the mayor's testimony was of a man so wrapped in certainty about his own virtue – "it saves kids' lives," he said of his charity – that he simply can't be bothered with learning the rules, much less following them. In a politician who has been so quick to accuse others of wallowing in gravy, it's an odd blind spot. Rules like these are made precisely to keep wandering politicians in check.

Whether Mr. Ford should lose his job for his blindness – well, that's another question. Being willfully obtuse is not a hanging offence. Even many voters who are hostile to the mayor would rather see him removed in an election than through the courts. But if he is, in the end, yanked from office and is looking for someone to blame, that mirror will be a good place to start.

For the latest updates from the courtroom, follow today's live coverage from Marcus Gee and Kelly Grant.

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