TORONTO – Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, whose tenure has been plagued by controversy and embarrassment, found himself embroiled in a new scandal Friday amid two independent reports he was caught on video appearing to smoke crack cocaine.
Leaving his home and again at city hall, Ford refused to answer any questions, but was quick to dismiss one of the reports as yet another smear job, although neither he nor his lawyer called the video fake.
“These allegations are ridiculous,” Ford said.
“It’s another story with respect to the Toronto Star going after me and that’s all.”
In an online account late Thursday, John Cook of the U.S.-based website Gawker.com said he had seen a cellphone video taken by a drug dealer that purportedly showed Ford smoking crack.
Both Gawker and the Toronto Star offered separate but similar accounts of the dealer shopping the video around for at least $100,000.
Both publications said they had declined to buy it, but both said the dealer — reached through an intermediary — had shown it to them.
In its report, the Star said two of its reporters had watched the video on May 3 that it said showed an intoxicated Ford in a room, sitting in a chair, and lighting and smoking from what appeared to be a glass crack pipe.
The publications reported Ford could be heard making crude remarks about Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and the high school football team he coaches.
The Star said it stood by its story and spokesman Bob Hepburn rejected any suggestions the paper was out to get the mayor.
“We’ve researched it extensively over the last few weeks since we saw the purported video and this is legitimate news coverage,” Hepburn said.
“The mayor has suggested that we’re out to get him over time, but the coverage we have done since he became mayor has been responsible, has been legitimate coverage of him.”
Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash said Friday investigators were “monitoring the situation closely.”
Ford’s lawyer Dennis Morris called the reports “false and defamatory.” But Morris also told the newspaper it was impossible to tell what a person was smoking by watching the video.
Word of the seedy allegations quickly spread through social media, setting off a frenzied debate on Twitter that saw many American pundits compare Ford to Marion Barry, the convicted crack-smoking former mayor of Washington, D.C.
“Unless he was entrapped by the government, it’s not similar,” Barry told the Washington City Paper.
Many commentors seemed amused by the latest scandal to plague the mayor, which came only months after he was accused of being either drunk or high at an official function and groping a female councillor — allegations he vehemently denied.
Others were skeptical, with deputy mayor Doug Holyday saying a “video can be altered” and “drug dealers can’t be trusted.”
Not everyone is likely to share Holyday’s faith in the city’s leader, said Penny Collenette, a law and ethics expert at the University of Ottawa, who noted Ford may face increasing pressure from council and the public to resign.
The mayor is innocent until proven guilty — and as such, can’t be forced to step down, she said, pointing to the cases of London, Ont., Mayor Joe Fontana and former Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien.
Fontana has refused to give up his seat despite being charged with fraud, while O’Brien continued to work while on trial on influence peddling charges, of which he was eventually cleared.
Ford is not facing any charges, but still, Collenette said, if the cloud of controversy that has dogged him derails proceedings at city hall, that may be enough to warrant his resignation.
“Just how many times can Toronto go through this with this particular mayor?” Collenette said.
“Can the city efficiently run with yet another distraction of this type? And what does this say about the city’s brand?”
Among other problems Ford has faced, earlier this year, he narrowly survived as mayor after a court ruled he should be ousted from office for conflict of interest, a decision overturned on appeal on a technicality.