Rob Ford alleged business deal was corrupt to get votes, lawyer suggests

TORONTO – Rob Ford’s campaign promise to stop the so-called gravy train at city hall may have steamrolled him into office two years ago, but it came at the price of a local businessman’s reputation, the Toronto mayor’s defamation trial heard Monday.

In the middle of the 2010 mayoral campaign Ford seized on controversy over a sole-sourced, untendered, 20-year lease deal between the city and a restaurant on public land, telling a Toronto newspaper it “stinks to high heaven” and suggesting the deal was corrupt.

With no concrete proof to back up those assertions, Ford’s remarks were merely “opportunist” without any foundation, said Brian Shiller, the lawyer for restaurant owner George Foulidis.

“This is not about genuinely looking into criminality,” Shiller said Friday in his closing arguments. “It’s about seeking votes and wining elections, and the roadkill is Mr. Foulidis.”

Ford had no concrete proof of wrongdoing, Shiller said, he just didn’t like the lack of a request-for-proposals process. Ford was fully entitled to express that view, but if that was all he said there would be no lawsuit, Shiller said.

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“He was making an election issue as sensational as possible to garner attention and the votes of the citizens of Toronto who shared his view that…city hall needed to be cleaned up,” Shiller said.

Ford’s lawyer, Gavin Tighe, is raising the defence of fair comment, arguing that Ford’s comments were opinion. He cited defamation case law from the Supreme Court of Canada, saying Ford’s remarks were not libellous unless the primary intent was to hurt Foulidis.

Shiller’s closing arguments defeated the whole lawsuit, Tighe suggested. If the primary intent was to get votes, it wasn’t to hurt Foulidis, he said.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has clearly signalled every time it has dealt with defamation in the last decade that the claim of libel, defamation, slander, is to be restricted,” Tighe said. “It is getting harder to prove because the defences are becoming stronger.”

Foulidis is suing the mayor for $6 million, alleging Ford libelled him in comments made to the editorial board of the Toronto Sun in the summer of 2010. Foulidis, through his company Tuggs Inc., had given the city a proposal for extending his 20-year lease for his Boardwalk Cafe restaurant for another 20 years rather than go through a tendering process again.

After some wrangling, city council ultimately approved it, but Ford – then a city councillor campaigning to be mayor – was not on board. He suggested to the newspaper that the deal was improper, saying he wished people could see what happens behind closed doors.

“These in-camera meetings, there’s more corruption and skulduggery going on in there than I’ve ever seen in my life,” Ford told the editorial board. “And if Tuggs isn’t then I don’t know what is.”

When Ford testified Friday he conceded – after much back-and-forth between Ford, Shiller and the judge – that he was suggesting the Tuggs deal was an example of “corruption and skulduggery.”

Ford also testified that when he suggested the Tuggs deal was corrupt he wasn’t implying illegality, he was suggesting proper processes weren’t followed.

“I can’t pinpoint it, but even to this day people still say the deal stinks to high heaven, but it’s hard to pinpoint and prove, but I’m not the only one saying that,” Ford said. “I’ve never seen a deal like this and it just didn’t add up to me. I still feel that way.”

Ford’s lawyer, Gavin Tighe, is arguing that the mayor was talking about Foulidis’ business, Tuggs Inc., and that companies can’t be defamed.

The mayor has suggested the lawsuit is politically motivated. He noted that other councillors made similar comments about the Tuggs deal and Foulidis did not sue them, nor did he sue the newspaper that published the comments.