Connecting dots: Rob Ford, 15 Windsor Rd., the photo and the alleged video

Charlie Gillis on tipping points and the trajectory of political scandal

The strong, silent type

Nathan Denette/CP

It was less a story than a trove of scenes, random and surreal. Toronto’s hulk of a mayor, smoking what appeared to be crack—or so said three journalists who reported watching video footage of Rob Ford huffing on a tell-tale glass pipe. There was a snapshot showing the mayor arm-in-arm with a young man who was later shot dead in a gang-style slaying. There were the stories from a dozen anonymous sources about Ford’s brother Doug, a Toronto city councillor, using the family basement in west Toronto as a hashish distribution centre in the 1980s.

But scenes are not proof, and by early last week, it became possible to imagine the mayor riding out this storm. His makeshift raft of avoidance and denial had held for nearly a month, and news that the city had eked out a $250-million surplus in 2012 provided welcome relief from the onslaught of disclosure. A poll taken in the wake of the revelations suggested support for Ford held firm around 34 per cent and, on Tuesday, Gawker, the American gossip website that first reported the alleged crack video, acknowledged that its $200,000 crowdfunding campaign to buy the footage might well go for naught. “After a long silence, the video’s owner reached out to the intermediary we have been dealing with,” acknowledged editor John Cook. “He told [the intermediary] the video is ‘gone.’ ”

Ford was ebullient. “We’re moving forward,” he grinned Wednesday during a flurry of public appearances—pouring coffee for Tim Hortons Camp Day; touring a bridge in need of repair. But as ever in Fordland, the calm was short-lived. That night, both Gawker and the Toronto Star published reports identifying the house in northwest Etobicoke where the photograph was taken, alleging it was also the location where the video was shot. The unkempt, yellow-brick bungalow is the family home of a high school chum of Ford’s, the Star reported, while neighbours provided the sort of insight not found in property records: it is known, neighbourhood gossip goes, as a drug house.

Is this the tipping point in a scandal that for all its sensation has yet to lay a glove on Toronto’s defiant mayor? Not yet, says Maureen Mancuso, one of the few academics in this country to make a study of political scandal. But it’s part of a familiar trajectory in which unproven allegations slowly coalesce into a narrative that, if unanswered, embeds itself in the public consciousness, says the University of Guelph political scientist. “Denial works only so long as the accusers have to draw long lines of assumption to connect the dots in their version of events,” says Mancuso. “If we start to find more evidence—more dots—and that evidence is consistent with the scandal narrative, then the lines of assumption get shorter and harder to reject.” Even without a proverbial “smoking gun,” she adds, public support for a politician can start to erode: “A smouldering fire still does damage as long as it smoulders, even if it never bursts into flame.”

Dispatches from the house at 15 Windsor Rd. have certainly added some dots. Quoting an unnamed source, Gawker reported that Ford is a long-time friend of 45-year-old resident Fabio Basso, and a frequent visitor to the home. Living with Basso in the house are his siblings Mario, 40, and Elena, 51, as well as his mother, Lina (the family’s father reportedly died in 2009). Both Fabio and Elena have criminal records—Fabio for minor theft offences, Elena for trafficking cocaine.

On the day the video was taken, according to Gawker, Ford had come to visit, and men were summoned from the nearby housing complex at 320 Dixon Rd. to provide the group with drugs. Among the three visitors were Anthony Smith, who some weeks later was shot dead; and Muhammad Khattak, who was injured in the same shooting. Both Smith and Khattak were pictured in the photo with the mayor, and their presence in this account is important because, according to unnamed sources, Ford had told members of his staff that he knew where the video was: on the 17th floor at 320 Dixon Rd. Gawker reported that one of the three men filmed Ford smoking crack; at some point, the site added, they asked the mayor to pose with them for a picture. Ford, it is alleged by the unnamed source, happily complied.

It’s a scenario, in short, that links previously disparate pieces: the home in the photo; the men in the photo; the purported video; and of course, Ford. Whether the killing of Smith was linked to the alleged video, as the mayor’s former staffers once feared, is not yet clear. But one day after reports of the tape became public, two large men stormed into the house at 15 Windsor demanding it, Gawker has reported, brushing aside Fabio Basso’s protests that he couldn’t find the young men who had filmed it. Four days later, on May 21, according to reports, one of the men arrived armed with a pipe and beat Basso and his girlfriend, forcing them to seek medical attention. Both police and ambulance officials have confirmed that an armed assault took place at the home, causing minor injuries to a man and a woman.

Maclean’s calls this week to the Basso home yielded no response, though Elena Basso told the Star: “Rob Ford’s the greatest mayor ever. You guys are scavengers.” It was not an enviable political endorsement, and just one of the problems hanging over the mayor. So far, two police investigations have opened up around the case, including one into the attack at 15 Windsor Rd., and another into the shooting of Smith and Khattak, who were gunned down outside a downtown Toronto nightclub on March 28. Two weeks ago, RCMP arrested a man in Fort McMurray, Alta., in connection with the shooting and charged him with first-degree murder. What details may emerge from these probes is anyone’s guess.

Small surprise, then, that the once-impregnable Ford brand has turned toxic to political powerbrokers of every stripe. Provincial government politicians conspicuously omitted the mayor this week from a ceremony marking the start of digging of a new tunnel on Eglinton Avenue. Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives distanced themselves from Doug Ford, who had made public his aspirations to run under their banner in the next Ontario election. On Monday, reports surfaced that the strategist who propelled Rob Ford to his stunning 2010 election win, Nick Kouvalis, had informed the mayor he won’t work for him again unless Ford checks himself into rehab.

The question is when, if ever, that doubt will catch on among the mayor’s anti-tax, pro-privatization voting base. Jim Ross, a conservative political consultant based in Ontario, believes the mayor’s support has held up partly because people knew they were getting a flawed man when they elected him. “When a politician is viewed as a regular person,” he says, “he is judged by the standards of a regular person instead of by the standard of perfection.” That sense of cultural difference has the added benefit of providing Ford with a useful defence—namely, his claim that he’s a victim of liberal elitists who wish to derail his agenda.

Yet the drip, drip of revelation continues, and there’s a growing sense that the mayor is unable to rise above his problems. This week, as unanswered questions swirled about his connection to the Bassos, Ford fended off accusations that he had booted the only woman left on his executive committee for daring to suggest he get help. Jaye Robinson, a centrist councillor, had done little more than suggest Ford take a break from his duties, returning when he could provide Torontonians with a proper answer to the allegations. “I think the mayor has personal issues that need to be addressed,” she said. “A temporary leave is not out of the question if the mayor is unwilling or unable to answer questions that have arisen.”

But it was unwelcome advice at a time when Ford is sticking to his message that he doesn’t use crack, that there is no video. The denials afford plenty of room for doubt, while leaving open the possibility of more revelations to come. Robinson claimed on Tuesday that no new disclosure could surprise her. Yet even she would have to admit that Ford has developed a propensity to defy such predictions. For his own health, and for his political well-being, it’s a habit he might want to kick.

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