As Fords exit mayor’s office, conflict probes intensify

Author(s): Stephen J. D'Agostino*

November 24, 2014

When Toronto city councillors were debating a zoning change in 2011, Doug Ford withdrew from the discussion because it could have affected a property leased by packaged-meats giant Maple Leaf Foods — a major client of his family printing business.

But then when the matter came up weeks later for final approval at city council, Ford and his brother, Mayor Rob Ford, voted on it.

As the Fords pack up their City Hall offices after last month’s Toronto municipal elections, which saw Doug lose his bid for the mayoralty and Rob reduced to councillor, scrutiny of those votes and others is only intensifying.

The brothers are still facing three complaints from earlier this year alleging they commingled their public duties with business related to their private company’s clients, including Nestle, Coca-Cola, Porter Airlines and Apollo Health and Beauty.

‘They’ll hunt us down until I’m pushing up tulips’ – Coun. Doug Ford on complainants

Two of those complaints sit with City of Toronto integrity commissioner Valerie Jepson, who wouldn’t discuss them but said in an email that she is following through on all files that were on her desk before the Oct. 27 municipal elections.

Jepson’s final report could come as early as the new council’s first meeting, on Dec. 2. If she finds against the Fords, Rob, at least, could be sanctioned by his fellow councillors.

The third complaint, a court action under Ontario’s Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, alleges the Fords voted on and tried to influence agenda items at City Hall affecting their company, Deco Labels, and some of its customers. Even with Doug soon to be out of office and Rob in a lesser role, the civic activist who brought the case said her plan is to “see it to its end.”

“The vagaries of an election don’t give you a pass for past behaviour,” said Jude MacDonald, who noted the stakes are high: She’s asking the judge to ban both Fords from holding municipal elected office for the maximum seven years.

‘Absolutely Ridiculous’

“This is nothing but politically motivated. It’s just absolutely ridiculous, a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Doug Ford said of the complaints in an interview Thursday.

“All I know is, Rob and I, we have zero conflicts.”

But as a CBC News analysis of municipal records found, Doug Ford himself once acknowledged otherwise, on a matter that could now lead to yet further allegations. This time, it’s about how the Fords voted on items affecting their family business’s onetime biggest client, Maple Leaf Foods.

Minutes from a 2011 local council meeting show Doug Ford declared an interest on a matter involving Maple Leaf Foods. He would later vote on that same issue and others involving the company, according to city records. (City of Toronto)

It was 2011. Ford was participating in a meeting of the local Etobicoke York community council, where city staff had submitted a plan to rejuvenate a stretch along St. Clair Avenue West with new retail, housing and services to replace the area’s older meatpacking plants.

Maple Leaf had premises in the zone and opposed development, sending a letter and lawyers to the meeting to say so.

The minutes show Ford withdrew from the discussion because “Maple Leaf Foods Inc. is one of his customers, and it has facilities which may be affected.”

Three weeks later, when the matter came up on the full city council agenda for ratification, neither Ford declared an interest, and both cast votes.

 The Fords’ votes went against Maple Leaf’s wishes, but under the law, that doesn’t matter, municipal lawyer Stephen D’Agostino said.

“The way you vote is irrelevant to whether you’re in a conflict,” he explained.

Asked why he declared a conflict during the community council debate but then went ahead and voted at city council, Doug Ford said, “I can’t even remember back in 2011.”

“It’s all ridiculous, as far as I’m concerned. We’re as straight as an arrow, and everyone knows it,” he said.

Both Fords voted again on a matter affecting Maple Leaf the following year, at a time when, according to four former Deco Labels employees, the food conglomerate was one of their biggest customers — accounting for $5 million a year in sales, two of the four said.

An intense debate erupted on council in November 2012, when Toronto’s water department staff proposed raising the fees on companies that hire the city to treat their wastewater.

Toronto water department head Lou Di Gironimo says the mayor’s office never contacted his staff to sort out any issues relating to a newly revealed major client of Ford family business Deco Labels. (OCWA)

Deco itself was among the affected companies. (When it came to light earlier this summer as a possible source of conflict for the Fords, Rob Ford told a Toronto Star reporter, “I do not have anything to do with the day-to-day operations …. They’re grasping at straws.”)

So were Maple Leaf Foods and its then-subsidiary Canada Bread Co. The companies’ names appear 10 times on two lists distributed by the water department to councillors prior to their meetings.

The proposed fee hike would have raised Maple Leaf’s wastewater surcharges by between 35 and 75 per cent, according to city estimates, potentially representing a total yearly increase of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Both Ford brothers voted against, helping defeat the proposal 22-18.

Coun. Mike Layton, who was pushing for the fee hikes, said it would have been straightforward for the Fords to declare an interest without complicating council’s deliberations.

“You declare a conflict of interest, you leave the room for that vote, and no one pays any attention to it,” he said in an interview. “It’s not rocket science.”

No evidence Fords lobbied staff

Unlike some of the instances brought up in the three complaints pending against the Fords, CBC News found no evidence that either brother worked behind the scenes at City Hall to get municipal staff to help their business’s client on the sewer or zoning files.

Lou Di Gironimo, general manager of the Toronto’s water department, said none of his staff were contacted by the mayor’s office about Maple Leaf Foods. And multiple access-to-information requests filed with the mayor’s office also turned up no relevant records.

Still, activist MacDonald said, it’s the kind of behaviour she would tend to bring to the court’s attention in her conflict-of-interest application against the Fords.

“If there was reports indicating major benefits went to clients as a result of their voting, that’s what conflict of interest is, and I would think it would be relevant for the courts to consider,” she said.

That’s if her claims ever go to trial. The Fords’ lawyer, Gavin Tighe, said he sees no issue with the Fords’ votes and will

apply to dismiss the conflict-of-interest case as an abuse of process, because it duplicates the complaints already before Toronto’s integrity commissioner.

Either way, Doug Ford was unfazed.

“They’ll hunt us down until I’m pushing up tulips,” he said. “So I really, honestly, I don’t give two craps. I don’t.”

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected].

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