Frenzied media circles 'crack-smoking' mayor
As far as stumbling political careers go, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's could be the stuff of comic farce - if it weren't for the alleged crack smoking and purported links to a suspected murder.
The eccentric leader of Canada's largest city has been embroiled in almost weekly embarrassing episodes since entering public office: cursing after walking face-first into a television camera, taking a spectacularly funny tumble on a football field, and being booted out of a professional ice hockey game for drunken, expletive-laden arguments with fans.
You've probably never heard of the 43-year-old - conservative by name but not always by nature. But footage purportedly showing Ford smoking crack cocaine with drug dealers, and a police investigation into the alleged murder of one of the men in the footage, has thrust the politician and his staff into the international spotlight.
Rumours began swirling two weeks ago about mobile phone footage apparently showing Ford puffing on a glass crack pipe.
The 90-second video is alleged to have been recorded by drug dealers who claimed to have sold cocaine to Ford and hoped to sell the footage for $200,000.
Three reporters now claim to have viewed the footage, which has not been released publicly nor its authenticity verified.
The Toronto Star says two of its journalists have watched the footage, which reportedly shows Ford sitting in a chair inhaling from a crack pipe with two other men.
The Star says Ford is at times incoherent and talks about Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and a high school football team.
The editor of US gossip website Gawker, John Cook, also claims to have flown to Toronto to watch the video and says he is convinced it is authentic.
Under pressure from even his closest allies and after a week of avoiding reporters, Ford last week publicly denied the video existed.
"I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine," Ford said in an extraordinary public statement.
"I cannot comment on a video that I have never seen or does not exist." He did not take questions from reporters.
But the fallout continues, with two of Ford's press advisers the latest to leave their jobs as questions swirl about the video.
On Monday, Ford said his press secretary, George Christopoulos, and deputy press secretary, Isaac Ransom, had decided to leave, but he declined to say why. Ford fired his chief of staff last week.
During a chaotic press conference on Monday, Ford also apologised for calling journalists "a bunch of maggots" on his weekly radio show on Sunday.
"I sincerely apologise to each and every one of you," Ford said. "It has been bothering me a lot."
It has also emerged that one of Ford's senior staffers has been questioned by police about a tip linking the purported video to the murder of 21-year-old Anthony Smith, who also allegedly features in it, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported.
Initial reports about the video in the Toronto Star and Gawker were accompanied by a photo, provided by the alleged drug dealers hawking the footage, that apparently showed Ford standing with a man believed to be Smith, who was gunned down outside a nightclub in Toronto in March.
Sources told the Globe and Mail that police had spoken to a high-ranking official in the mayor's office as part of an "ongoing investigation that is currently in the media".
The newspaper said the staffer reportedly told officers he claimed to know where the video was, and that the person who had it may have been murdered for what he knew.
The Toronto Star declined to pay $200,000 for the footage, however Gawker used a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise the money to pay the alleged drug dealers for the footage.
Dubbed "Crackstarter" the crowd-funding effort has more than 8000 contributors who have pledged donations from $5 for an e-book of Ford's "most outrageous statements and lowest moments" up to $10,000 for the phone purportedly used to record the video.
But Gawker later wrote on its website: "We have had no further contact with the people we believe to have custody of this video since the last update."
If Gawker is unable to obtain the video, it says it will donate the proceeds to a Canadian non-profit institution that helps people suffering from drug addiction.
Some critics of Ford have called on him to step down, but Ford has vowed to seek re-election next year.
The mayor has been embroiled in regular controversies about his behaviour since being elected in 2010, but these are the most serious allegations he has yet faced.
The Toronto Star reported this year that the mayor was asked to leave a gala fundraiser for wounded Canadian soldiers because he appeared intoxicated.
During his campaign for mayor, Ford vehemently denied a 1999 arrest for marijuana possession in Florida, but he later acknowledged it was true after he was presented with evidence. He pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and failing to give a breath sample to police.
In 2008, he repeatedly referred to the tireless work ethic of "Orientals" who were "slowly taking over".
In office, he has been accused of flouting conflict of interest rules and making obscene gestures at residents from his car.
In August, someone posted a photo to Twitter of Ford reading while driving his car on the highway at about 70km/h.
Asked whether the allegation was true, Ford replied: "Probably. I'm busy."
The latest controversy has drawn comparisons to the 1990 arrest of then-Washington Mayor Marion Barry, who was videotaped smoking cocaine in a hotel room during an FBI sting operation.
Barry served six months in federal prison on a misdemeanour drug possession conviction but later won a fourth term as mayor in 1994.
-Fairfax Media with AP