Rob Ford Conflict of Interest Allegations: What Are the Rules of the Game?

Everyone is watching the mayoralty race in Toronto unfold. Anything involving Rob Ford is scrutinized and reported to great fanfare.

The latest topic involve conflict of interest allegations made against Rob Ford. The Globe and Mail reports that Ford’s family business (in which he continues to retain a financial interest) helped a client of the business lobby the city “in an unsuccessful bid to conduct a strategic review of Toronto’s $9-million in-house printing division.”

What is Rob Ford’s defence? Judging by another article, it seems to be this. “All I did was arrange a meeting between the client and city staff. My family’s business has contacts with virtually everyone in the city and the province. Therefore, I cannot be expected to refrain from having contact with current or former clients of the business. The family business does not earn significant money from the client. The client just wanted to help the city save money.”

There are different standards for evaluating conflicts of interest, depending on whose actions are being evaluated. For lawyers, the Supreme Court of Canada held that a “bright line” rule was needed, even if this would be a “major inconvenience” for “large law partnerships.” Judges are subject to the “highest standard of impartiality.”

Rightly or wrongly, municipal mayors are not subject to these same high standards for the purposes of evaluating conflicts of interest. A major dispute could involve debate over the applicable standard. Michael Bloomberg in New York offers some guidance. He became mayor of New York at the same time that he was owner of Bloomberg L.P., a multi-billion dollar financial services, media and technology company. When he was appointed, the City’s Conflict of Interest board advised mayor Bloomberg that he was allowed to be involved with only four broad areas of the company: “the sale of all or part of the company, the sale or purchase of significant assets, major financial commitments like loans, and major changes in employee compensation or structure.” Beyond these matters, “the board generally advised the mayor to seek its advice if any Bloomberg entity had a matter before a city agency.”

The same rules may not have applied to Rob Ford. The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (involved in the earlier conflict of interest decision that threatened to remove mayor Ford from office) only refers to conflicts of interest arising out of “meeting of the council.” The judge in that case called for legislative reform.

The Charbonneau Commission and the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry proved that municipal politics are rife with the potential for conflicts of interest. The lasting lesson in this latest twist in the Rob Ford saga may be the need for the province and the city to again review their conflict of interest rules. Conflicts of interests come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes and colours of the rainbow. Did the city have in place a set of rules to deal with potential conflicts of interest involving Rob Ford’s interest in the family business? If so, were those rules followed? If there were no such rules, why? Are new rules needed? What standard should be applicable? Is it fair to expect the independence of a judge?

At a minimum, there should be a clear understanding of the rules and what we seek to achieve by these rules (ironically, given John Tory’s recent calls for conflict of interest investigations against Rob Ford to be accelerated, this is something that would be even more acutely needed if Tory were elected mayor, given his involvement in numerous corporate boards, including Rogers Communications). Can we balance the need for passionate, involved candidates who have connections to all corners of communities with the obligation to deliver fairly-priced goods and services to the municipality?

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