The Perils of Mandatory Minimums


It seems a silly thing to bring down the duly elected mayor of the largest city of Canada, but today a judge found Toronto mayor Rob Ford in violation of the law and ordered his removal of from office within the next fourteen days, pending appeal.

The events, as presented to the court, are as follows: the Integrity commissioner ruled that Rob Ford was in violation of municipal ethics when he solicited donations for his football charity using council letterhead. The amount received was $3,150.

This doesn't seem like a lot of money, and it isn't, but the principle is bigger than the funds. By using council letterhead to ask for donations for his personal charity, Rob Ford gave the appearance of council backing and support for his charity. It gave the appearance that the donors were supporting the city directly. And when money changed hands, it gave the appearance that those donors offering money could potentially expect some favours in return.

Likely this wasn't the intention, but this is the script that has been followed elsewhere when serious municipal corruption takes place. And the public have been very clear: people should not be able to buy their way into government. That way lies the realm of a banana republic. And those who have championed the need for openness and accountability in government -- whom Rob Ford himself claimed to be when he challenged a 20 year lease given to a vendor to sell food at the Toronto beaches -- are betrayed when Ford follows this script and claims that it's no big deal.

But this isn't why Ford was removed from office. No, the matter that brought him to court came about when Ford took things one step further. When the Integrity Commissioner's recommendation was put to Toronto City Council for vote, Rob Ford rose to speak on the motion, and ended up casting a vote on a motion that would have absolved him from repaying that $3,150.

If any other politician had cast a vote that would leave him or herself richer, politicians like Rob Ford would have pilloried them, and rightly so. We demand that our politicians at least give the appearance of operating outside of their own self interest. We required the provincial government to cast the law accordingly. It's inconceivable to think that Rob Ford didn't have legal advice to tell him that he was breaking the law. But he ultimately chose to do so.

Some have joked "well, we got Al Capone on income tax evasion", but personally, I did not relish the prospect that Ford could be removed from office because of his willful abuse of the law. I think that Rob Ford has been a bad mayor for Toronto for so many reasons, the $3,150 is chump change in comparison. I also believe that the fate of Ford's mayoralty was best left to the public, and not to the courts, to decide. All polls suggested that Ford was finished should a single credible candidate materialize to challenge him (and, currently, there are four). Now Ford has clearly decided to use this to play the martyr card, almost going as far as to suggest that the judge was politically motivated for bringing down the decision he did. This should be hard to argue that given that the judge was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but it could play to those who only listen to soundbites.

But if you read the verdict, you can see that the judge tried what he could to limit the punishment, given the small amount of money that's at issue, here. Unfortunately, he had no choice. The law was clear not only in what constituted a conflict of interest (which Rob Ford willfully broke), but also in what the penalty should be. The judge might have preferred fining Ford, but his hands were tied because of the law's mandatory minimum.

And that's something I hope that Rob Ford's defenders take note of, since many of them have, in the past, been supporters of mandatory minimum sentences for other crimes. Perhaps now some will see the perils of legislating how judges should act, and making the law rigid when some flexibility is demanded. Maybe they'll be shaken enough to rethink their earlier approaches, either going back on their support for mandatory minimums, or accepting the fact that Ford did the crime, and now must do the time.

The question is, will they?

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