Mayor Rob Ford's political troubles could not keep him away from the football field, especially on the eve of his team's first-ever run at the Toronto region's high school equivalent of the Grey Cup.
It is a championship bid 10 years in the making, since Mr. Ford took the reins of the football program at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School in 2002 as a volunteer coach. Wrapped in a hoodie, the mayor led the team through the last 45 minutes of a final practice on Monday ahead of the championship game in the Metro Bowl at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday. The mayor is expected to be there even if meetings at City Hall, where his leadership is in doubt, go into overtime.
His love for football and the young players he mentors got him into this legal quandary – and a $3,150 donation from lobbyists and their clients to his football foundation.
But it was Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and its ironclad penalties that led to a judge's order that he leave office in 14 days.
The legislation, which Mr. Justice Charles Hackland of the Ontario Superior Court called a "very blunt instrument" as he made his ruling, has often been criticized by lawyers; the province is currently reviewing it.
The act gave Judge Hackland only two options once he determined that Mr. Ford had violated it, and not "inadvertently" or through an "error in judgment": ordering him out of office and banning him from running for up to seven years. Judge Hackland declined to bring the second penalty down on Mr. Ford's head. Mr. Ford, the judge ruled, did not deserve such a sanction because he was not involved in an issue of "corruption or pecuniary gain."
A spokeswoman for Bob Chiarelli, the province's Minister of Municipal Affairs, said on Monday the legislation is under review, as well as another major law that governs local politicians, the Ontario Municipal Act. The conflict-of-interest act's strict penalties stand in stark contrast to the latter, under which sitting councillors and mayors may not be forced from office even if they are convicted of a crime. Mayors or members of council can lose their posts under this law only if they are actually incarcerated.
The difference is illustrated by a controversy in London, Ont., where mayor Joe Fontana has refused to step down despite facing criminal fraud charges. Unlike Mr. Ford, the London mayor, who denies the allegations, has not been found by a judge to have violated any law.
"The good fortune that Mr. Fontana has is that he is not alleged to have broken the Conflict-of-Interest Act," said Myer Siemiatycki, a political science professor at Ryerson University.
Premier Dalton McGuinty, who offered little comment about the ruling against Mr. Ford other than that it was "surprising," declined to say whether the penalties in the Conflict of Interest Act are too harsh, or whether his government should make it a priority to review the legislation. "There's nothing that strikes me of an emergency nature here," he told reporters.
Mr. Ford got a much more sympathetic reception from the Official Opposition at Queen's Park. "I think it's tragic when a political figure winds up in a position like this," Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman said. "He has done a reasonably good job in our estimation of handling affairs at the City of Toronto, keeping costs in check, but he has some troubles which will have to be resolved. I don't think there's anything to celebrate here."
Michael Barrack, a lawyer with Thornton Grout Finnigan LLP who was involved in a conflict-of-interest inquiry in Mississauga, Ont., two years ago, argues that allowing judges more leeway under the conflict-of-interest law would make it easier to hold politicians who repeatedly violate rules to account, not harder.
Cases involving less-severe allegations could be brought forward more often, and at less expense, he argued, because the stakes would not be as high: "That way, a guy like Ford may actually get his wrist slapped more often and that may have a greater effect at the polls because you wouldn't have to climb this very high hill to point out every time he misbehaves."
But John Mascarin, a lawyer with Aird & Berlis LLP who advises municipal politicians on conflict rules, said the act is strict for a reason: to keep any hint of personal financial gain out of municipal politics. "It is supposed to be very unforgiving. It is supposed to be a very harsh act," he said.
Mr. Ford's actions, Judge Hackland noted, were not for his own gain.
John Yan, a spokesman for the Toronto Catholic School Board, noted the amount of volunteer work Mr. Ford put into the football program, noting that it is the first appearance in the Metro Bowl for a team from the Catholic board.
"He's spent 10 years on this," Mr. Yan said at Monday's practice. "I don't think he's going to stop now."