The Ford case

Earlier this week an Ontario Superior Court Justice found that the mayor of Toronto – Rob Ford – guilty of a conflict of interest and ordered him removed from office.  The mayor’s offense was having participated in a vote of the Toronto City Council on a matter in which he had an interest –  specifically, determining whether he needed to repay $3,150 to donors who had contributed to his football foundation, for which he had used his official position to solicit. So, the case is essentially one of a conflict arising from another conflict.

I’ve not followed the matter closely – perhaps because the conflict, while pretty clear cut, seems relatively mild (indeed, almost quaint) by the  community standards to which I, as a resident of New Jersey, have sadly grown accustomed.  Still, as discussed in this excellent post in Chris MacDonald’s Business Ethics Blog   there are lessons to be learned from it

First, he notes “Whatever your views of Ford, and whatever your views about the severity of his breach of the Conflict of Interest Act, you pretty much have to agree that Ford demonstrated a disappointing lack of leadership ethics, here..[w]hat’s particularly worrisome here is that Ford, who by all rights ought to be the guy who leads Council in understanding its ethical obligations, seems to be utterly clueless about them. And he doesn’t seem terribly worried about that, either. According to a report of the court proceedings, Ford ‘testified he never read the Conflict of Interest Act or the councillor orientation handbook. Nor did he attend councillor training sessions that covered conflicts of interest.’”

This indeed an important point, to which I can add only that recent behavioral ethics research has shown that leaders tend to be more ethically vulnerable than are others.  (And this post is also relevant to business leaders’ conflicts.)  What this suggests to me is that leaders need to have a heighted sense of ethical awareness both as a matter of leading others, i.e., for their organization’s sake,  and also for their own. (Note: while the first reason should be reason enough to help persuade them of the need to have such heightened awareness, as a practical matter the second reason may be necessary to “make the sale.”)

Chris’ second point concerns the legal framework that the judge was required to apply in this case – which essentially mandated removal of office regardless of the severity of the conflict: a “governance system that allows a political leader to blunder this way and then throws a city into turmoil is not a good system. Principles matter, but so does the way we implement them.”

I agree with this, as well,  and note that a governance system – whether in the public or private sphere – that over-punishes risks losing legitimacy just as much as does one that responds too weakly to wrongdoing.  For more on the importance of “organizational justice” to addressing COIs see this post.  And, this post about a database used to keep track of disciplinary actions imposed by NYC’s Conflict of Interest Board might also be of interest.

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