An encounter between former Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson and Mayor Rob Ford at a party fundraiser hosted by a Jewish political group Thursday night has ignited a storm of allegations and denials.
Ms. Thomson has publicly accused Mr. Ford of groping her, an accusation Mr. Ford's office firmly rejected.
In a statement, Mr. Ford said he was "shocked, dismayed and surprised" at the "absolutely, completely false" allegations, particularly since they surfaced on International Women's Day.
""What is more surprising is that a woman who has aspired to be a civic leader would cry wolf on a day where we should be celebrating women across the globe," he said.
In interviews with The Globe and Mail Friday morning, Ms. Thomson gave her version of what transpired at the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee at Arcadian Court, near City Hall, and says she wants an apology.
She said Mr. Ford grabbed her buttocks while she and the mayor posed for photos, but that no one else witnessed the incident because she was standing with her back to the wall.
Nor was she planning to file a sexual-assault complaint with police, she said.
"If we get it out there, if we talk about it, we'll change society that way," she said.
"I wouldn't do that (file a complaint) I think getting it out publicly is the right thing to do and I'm taking a lot of flak for it. People are saying I'm grandstanding or whatever; if I was grandstanding I would have done it when I ran for mayor."
Mr. Ford did not appear inebriated, she said. He was not slurring his words "and I didn't smell any booze."
All the same, she said, his behaviour seemed odd.
"He seemed out of it, this was not the normal Rob Ford we know."
Another guest at the function, lawyer Omar Ha-Redeye, said in an interview that Ms. Thomson did complain to him about the alleged incident shortly afterwards.
"She said `He grabbed my ass,' that's what she told me," Mr. Ha-Redeye said.
The mayor's chief of staff, Mark Towhey, denied the allegations and told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Ford is contemplating legal action.
Mr. Towhey added that the mayor had three staff members "within earshot," while the picture with Ms. Thomson was being taken and none overheard the exchange she is reporting.
Mr. Towhey said he too attended the event and "at no time did she ever raise any concerns with us."
Ms. Thomson rejected Mr. Towhey's denial, reiterating that the incident did occur.
"That's what they always say, right? So I guess I think, you know what, they've got to delve into it more. I think there were a lot of people who saw the state that Rob was in are out there and will attest to that. So I think they have to deal with that. And they have to manage it well. I always think if you make a mistake, you admit to it and apologize and move on. And I hope that's what they'll do, but who knows."
The row began shortly after midnight, when Ms. Thomson posted comments on her Facebook page and included an unflattering photo of a tired-looking Mr. Ford standing beside her with his eyes closed.
She then followed up with a Friday-morning interview on Newstalk 1010's Moore in the Morning show, in which she repeated the allegations.
On Facebook, Ms. Thomson wrote: "Thought it was a friendly hello to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford at the CJPAC Action Party tonight until he suggested I should have been in Florida with him last week because his wife wasn't there. Seriously wanted to punch him in the face. Happy International Women's Day!"
As readers responded, she commented:
"I've never seen him so out of it. I know I shouldn't be pissed but after spending 10 months on the campaign trail together you expect a little bit of respect at the very least for my husband."
Alluding to the photograph, she added: "Guess where his hand was in this picture? I must go shower." She added: "Is grabbing someone ass assault?"
Ms. Thomson is publisher of Women's Post magazine and ran unsuccessfully for the provincial Liberals in the 2011 election. She ran against Mr. Ford for mayor in 2010, but withdrew before election day and threw her support behind George Smitherman. She is also chairwoman of the Toronto Transit Alliance.
She said the incident began when Mr. Ford remarked that he had been vacationing in Florida recently and suggested that she should have accompanied him because his wife Renata was not with him.
Mr. Towhey, however, insisted that Mr. Ford's wife did go along on the Florida trip, and that she was with him for the entire vacation except for the first evening, when he was there with his children.
Mr. Towhey said Ms. Ford came to the airport with her family but was unable to get on the flight with them because her passport had expired, and so she joined her family the next day.
As to how the Mayor is dealing with his latest headache, "He just kind of shakes his head and doesn't understand how people make these kinds of accusations," Mr. Towhey told CFRB Newstalk 1010.
Ms. Thomson reiterated that she was stunned when Mr. Ford allegedly touched her.
"I'm looking at him going what ... am I one of the guys, like how's he treating me?" she told Newstalk 1010.
"And then he said 'Yeah we could've had some fun.' And then I thought this is just not him, this is weird.
"And then he grabbed my ass and I'm thinking what the heck is going on? I was so mad about it."
Asked what she did then, she replied: "I looked at him and asked what's wrong with you? And he laughed it off and said 'No, we could've really had a good time.' and I walked away. I wanted to punch him in the face. It's one of those things where you just kind of go 'How dare you!' "
The law defining sexual assault states, among other things that it encompasses any form of unwanted sexual contact, but Ms. Thomson reaffirmed that she has no plans to pursue her complaint any further.
"I'm not the type who's going to take this to court," she said.
Ms. Thomson said she immediately described Mr. Ford's behaviour to others at the event. She said that she and her executive assistant, Sarah Patterson,spoke with a group of people that included Richmond Hill councillors Carmine Perrelli and Greg Beros.
"There were a bunch of people there. They were saying you should have got a photo and I was like, 'Yeah, I wish I did have one,' " Ms. Thomson said.
Ms. Patterson said Ms. Thomson urged her to get her photo taken with Mr. Ford.
"She was like – 'If you want to go get your picture taken with Ford'. I said, 'Sure'.She's like, 'See if he does it to you.' I was like, 'OK'. And he didn't. He was very nice," Ms. Patterson said.
While they were posing, Ms. Thomson said she stood behind them with her camera focused on Ms. Patterson's behind.
"So unfortunately we didn't get the photo, so I'm left to defend what happened to me without any physical evidence," Ms. Thomson said.
As she was leaving the event, Ms. Thomson said she saw a police officer and told him what had happened.
"I had mentioned it to him and just said, 'You know, maybe you need to get the Mayor out of here because he grabbed my ass.' And he said, 'Well do you want to press charges?' And I said, 'No, no.' "
Toronto Police spokeswoman Constable Wendy Drummond said she could not confirm such a conversation because "it would breach confidentiality".
Ms. Thomson said two people to whom she confided at the event were lobbyist Paul Pellegrini and Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer, and both voiced shock, she said.
"A few people went to his [the Mayor's] handlers and said `Get him out of there,' " she said, contradicting Mr. Towhey's version of events.
Mr. Pellegrini did not reply to interview requests, and an aide to Mr. Zimmer said he was travelling and he too could not be reached.
Lawyer Omar Ha-Redeye confirmed that Ms. Thomson, whom he knows, approached him as they stood a few feet away from Mr. Ford.
"She said `He grabbed my ass,' that's what she told me," Mr. Ha-Redeye said in an interview.
"… It surprised me. I looked at her, she said `Yeah, he's never done that before any of the other times we've taken photos together'. We were in a crowded hallway so I don't think she wanted to make a scene or anything like that."
He said he did not personally witness the incident and could only confirm that she spoke to him.
- With a report from Elizabeth Church