Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ford's troubles come at bad time for Katz

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It may not hurt Sam Katz, but it certainly doesn't help him.

The moment on Monday an Ontario judge removed Toronto Mayor Rob Ford from office for violating conflict-of-interest laws, many eyes in this town turned toward the Winnipeg mayor, who is fighting his own conflict-of-interest legal battle.

Katz will be in court this April over allegations he violated conflict-of-interest laws in this province when he spent $2,900 in taxpayer money entertaining councillors and city staff at a restaurant he owned at the time.

To be clear, we're talking about a different case involving an entirely different politician in another province governed by a different piece of provincial legislation. Yet it's hard to shake the feeling Ford's downfall will have a ripple effect in Winnipeg.

The Ford case does not serve as a legal precedent; the testy Toronto mayor is not the first politician to be removed from office for ethical transgressions, although he may be the highest-profile victim of this type of legal challenge. However, Manitoba's law is fundamentally the same as Ontario's. That is, a judge who finds a politician guilty of a conflict of interest has but one option: to order the office held by the politician vacated.

In a broader sense, the Ford case is just plain bad timing for Katz. Without suggesting a judge here would be influenced by what happened there, it would have helped Katz immensely in his legal battle if the whole country weren't involved in a debate over political conflict-of-interest principles.

Katz's lawyer, Robert Tapper, went immediately on the offensive Monday, suggesting the Ford case had no bearing on Katz's legal predicament. A master of hyperbole, Tapper said comparing the two cases would be like comparing "apples to horseshoes." Perhaps, but that is Tapper's attempt to focus on the differences to the exclusion of the similarities.

It would be hard to find a more arcane case than the one that brought Ford down. In March 2010, before he was mayor, a charity Ford founded accepted $3,150 in donations from lobbyists and their clients. The charity provides football equipment to underprivileged high schools. Ford solicited the donations using city council letterhead.

The city's integrity commissioner found Ford violated code-of-conduct guidelines and advised him to repay the money. Council voted to support that recommendation, but Ford refused despite six reminders.

This past February, council reconsidered the sanction against Ford, now the city's mayor. In that deliberation, Ford not only spoke to the motion but voted in favour of giving himself a stay. Those actions prompted a citizen to file a complaint that Ford had violated conflict-of-interest laws.

There are similarities between the Ford and Katz cases, starting with the fact it took complaints by people outside civic politics to spark the court action. And it appears both cases have less to do with magnitude and more to do with principle. Namely, that a conflict of interest is worrisome, regardless of its monetary value.

There are those in Toronto now lamenting the fact a judge has removed from office a politician who won a landslide electoral victory just two years ago. And given the paltry sum of money involved and the rather mundane circumstances of the transgression, that the punishment does not fit the crime.

It is true both Ontario and Manitoba law rather arbitrarily say all ethical violations, regardless of magnitude, should be subject to the same penalty. Perhaps a more complex law would have given the Ontario judge more options. Perhaps Ford should have repaid the money, paid a fine, then carried his conviction into the court of public opinion in the next election.

On the other hand, perhaps there is virtue in a law that warns politicians to steer clear of conflicts of interest, both big and small. Perhaps lawmakers realized that small ethical misdeeds are like gateway drugs; once a politician develops a tolerance for misdemeanours, they are more likely to experiment with more felonious forms of self-interested dishonesty.

And by the time an addiction to big transgressions is uncovered, we'll be left wondering why we didn't step in when the politician was dabbling in a more recreational form of chicanery.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2012 A4

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