Does Mayor Rob Ford have some kind of bulletproof armour underneath his business suit? Lately, it almost seems so. He hasn't only been dodging bullets; he's been walking in front of them. They seem to bounce right off.
This is the third time in two months that Mr. Ford has survived a serious legal challenge. At the end of December, a judge dismissed a libel case against him from the owner of a waterfront pub. At the end of January, an appeal court overturned a judge's ruling ousting him from office for violating conflict-of-interest rules. Now this. Despite evidence of several apparent campaign-spending violations during Mr. Ford's 2010 run for mayor, the city's audit committee voted 2-1 on Monday not to appoint a prosecutor to pursue the case.
No wonder the mayor was so triumphant when he faced reporters after the decision. "It's a great day for democracy," he said, again listing his accomplishments as mayor. If he doesn't trip up again, he has a chance of recovering from his series of much-publicized troubles and even winning re-election in October 2014.
But with this mayor, that is always a big "if." Regrettably, there is little to indicate that Mr. Ford has learned anything from this series of embarrassing and eminently avoidable troubles. After the audit decision, his brother, Doug, again accused the mayor's left-wing critics of waging a campaign to overturn the result of the 2010 election by other means. When a reporter asked if the mayor had not sometimes courted trouble by ignoring the rules, the answer was a straight No.
The mayor himself saw only vindication in the audit committee's split vote. "I'm happy the committee understands we ran a clean, professional and above-board campaign. We made every effort to comply with all the rules."
Is that what the committee said when it decided not to commence proceedings? It released no ruling and its members made no statement, so it is hard to say. They may simply have decided that, as Mr. Ford's lawyer argued, there was no percentage in proceeding given the difficulty of a successful prosecution. In the end, they voted to accept the findings of an auditor who found apparent violations of the spending rules – but not to take further action.
Stripped of all the legal jargon, the argument the mayor's lawyers made against prosecuting him boiled down to this: Why bother? The things he is accused of doing are piddling and minor. They didn't affect the outcome of the election that made him mayor – he would have won anyway – and none of it was deliberate or sneaky. It was a big, expensive, complex campaign and, well, stuff happens. If you send this to a prosecutor, it will just cost the taxpayer a lot of money and end with no more than a slap on the wrist. So get a life, drop it and move on.
"The question is not whether or not … there was a contravention of the legislation. The question is whether anything more is to be gained by prosecution in the public interest," Ford lawyer Tom Barlow argued.
It is a fair point. Part of the audit committee's job is to decide whether prosecution would have a reasonable chance of success. But it left some troubling questions dangling. The auditor retained to report on the Ford campaign found a whole raft of apparent violations, from spending money before the campaign launch and borrowing money from the Ford family business instead of a bank to taking banned contributions from corporations and exceeding the campaign spending limit. Now those issues will never be tested in court or even scrutinized by a prosecutor. It makes you wonder why the spending rules are there in the first place. Is it now okay to spend money before the campaign launch or to take money from companies, as long as it isn't too much money?
As the lawyer for the complainants, Heidi Rubin, put it, "The election financing rules lose their muscle unless candidates remain accountable for their apparent contraventions. … The purpose of the rules is to retain the confidence of the electorate in the integrity of the process, to uphold the values of transparency and of accountability. "
Appointing a prosecutor might have cleared the air. Instead, we have this unsatisfying finish. If the mayor has learned anything from this latest close shave, he has yet to show it.