He’s no longer mayor. He’s in the fight of his life against a rare, aggressive form of cancer. So what about the drug scandal that’s plagued Rob Ford since May 2013—is it now a thing of the past? For the latest edition of Ruffly Speaking, I caught up with Toronto Star reporter Kevin Donovan. We looked back on some of the highlight’s of his award-winning Ford investigation, some of the journalism lessons he’s taken from that experience and what we might expect going forward.
You’ve pledged to follow the Rob Ford drug scandal through to its conclusion. Are we there yet?
I never predict when something’s going to end or start. I’m always very careful about that. I think the police are doing some form of investigation, although right now it seems to be related to just preparing for the hearings for Sandro Lisi’s trial. In the early 90s I did an investigation into Ontario’s air ambulance program. It was a pretty big investigation. There were a lot of changes. And then 2011, I ended up many years later investigating ornge, the new air ambulance program. So I always like to keep tabs on things that I’ve looked into. As far as the Ford thing, I personally hope that his health returns. We’re certainly going to see him at council. The question is, will the rehab take? Will he be able to keep himself in control? There will be focus on him if he returns to council, no doubt about it, because people find him intriguing.
But is it less of a priority for you now that he’s no longer mayor?
The Ghomeshi story caused us to change gears for a while. I’m the team leader so there are other things to do. Ya, he has cancer. He’s totally out of the public spotlight. And, ya, it is less of a priority for me now. That said, at any point it could become more of a priority.
Once the story gets rolling you have to make sure you don’t compromise yourself just for the sake of a splashy headline
So many bad things happened to people connected to the video in a short time period—Anthony Smith was killed, the home invasion at 15 Windsor and shooting at the Dixon towers that same day, a guy was tossed from a balcony… was it all just a coincidence?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence. My hope is that when the case comes to court some information will trickle out that we don’t know about.
In the past, you’ve said the Ford investigation wasn’t very important compared to other stories you’ve worked on. Looking back, do you still feel that way?
I do remember saying that. And I’ve said that as recently as a couple of weeks ago when I was speaking to journalism students at Ryerson. I do understand the importance of it, because there were some serious allegations involving the mayor of Canada’s biggest city and they had to be explored. My comment back then was comparing it to work that I’d done on adults with developmental challenges who were being abused in group homes, charities, ornge, which is a big service at a cost of $150 million a year that’s supposed to transport patients safely and economically in Ontario. Those ones I considered to be more important.
The thing about the Ford story, like the Ghomeshi story, was that so many people were interested in it. And to me that’s because of the personalities involved. Both stories have very colourful characters at the centre of them. The difference is with the Ford story, I don’t think it caused people in municipal governments across Canada to change the way they did work at all. When we did the ornge story, I do know that a lot of organizations in Ontario realized that if they did not have proper transparency and accountability guidelines they’d better get them. The Ghomeshi story caused people to look at their own workplaces and see if they have sexual harassment policies in place. It was followed by the work Jayme Poisson and Emily Mathieu did on universities and colleges and how sexual violence is dealt with on campus. So there’s a more obvious public interest there because it’s so broad—that issue. And it really touched a nerve.
How did working on the Ford story improve your journalism?
Any story that a journalist does—the goal is for every story to help you do the next story better. And you have to learn from it. People do go to journalism school, but it’s very much a job you learn as you go. So for me there were some sources that were incredibly helpful and I had to make sure they were protected and that I really listened to them. It could be at all hours of the night that they’d provide information. You have to be available for them. I use this as an example for young journalists—you have to have good relationships with your sources. Particularly with the Ghomeshi thing, it was very similar where you have people who don’t want to come forward and they are sources of information. And so I think it makes you better when you go through something like this.
Donovan’s Top 5
The long-time Star reporter ranks the five most interesting investigations of his career.
ORNGE An investigation into waste and mismanagement at Ontario’s air ambulance service
The Bad Boys of Charity A look into how and why few cents from dollar reach the needy
Nowhere to Go An investigation into the lack of supports for people with developmental challenges
Silent Sins A 1989 investigation of Catholic Church in Canada
Rahim Jaffer The story of the former MP’s connection to an alleged conman
There was an incredible amount of international media interest in this scandal. How did you balance the need to conduct a thorough investigation with the need to be mindful of competitive pressures?
Certainly, we are in a competitive business. There were times where there was a story we felt we just were not ready to run with. And my expression is always we’re willing to take the hit on the front page tomorrow because we don’t feel we can prove this element of the story. You have to be prepared to do that—particularly with a story where there’s a feeding frenzy. Ghomeshi’s like that, Ford was like that, where there’s a lot of people competing. Once the story gets rolling you have to make sure you don’t compromise yourself just for the sake of a splashy headline.
Like with 15 Windsor Road (the house where Ford was filmed smoking crack cocaine). We’d found that house and were in the process of trying to do some things. I can’t recall who it was but then another media outlet was on to us. By the way, how we found that house was Jesse McLean and Tim Alamenciak just took that photo and zeroed in on a wire sticking out from the garage. With our general notion of where it might be, they just drove around and around until they found it. That was pretty cool work that Tim and Jesse did.
It must have been fun to work on these stories.
I don’t know if it’s fun, but it’s certainly exciting to have a family, particularly two brothers in the family, who were against you and were very public about their disdain and hatred for you. I just don’t know if I’d describe it as fun because there was a lot of hard work involved. But it was satisfying to get the stories out there.
You’re rarely seen at City Hall. Have you ever spoken to the Fords?
I do have a funny story from a couple of weeks ago. I’ve never spoken to Doug Ford. I was at the Stephen LeDrew show one afternoon to talk about Ghomeshi and the Deputy Police Chief Peter Sloly was in the waiting room. And it became clear that Doug Ford was the guest in front of me. I saw an opportunity there. I walked out, and they’d just gone to commercial, and LeDrew said Kevin Donovan is our next guest. He tells me that Doug Ford then turned to him and said, “That’s that little prick that wrote those stories about my brother.”
I bounded up the two steps as he was coming up from the couch and stuck my hand out. Everybody was watching to see what was going to happen. He didn’t shake my hand for a good 10 seconds. He did eventually shake it and it was a pretty good handshake. I said, “I really want to interview you.” And he said, “Stephen, I’m going to zip it,” as he touched his mouth, “because you know what happens when I don’t zip it.” It was interesting.
If I’m there at City Hall, because of the nature of my involvement in the story, I think it would take away from what the reporters are trying to do there. Just calling out questions, which they have to do, is not my style. I used to do that a long time ago when I was a general assignment reporter. But I always want to get as deep into the story as I can. I have been up there at certain times. You just know that you’re not going to get, in that sort of situation, anything different than anybody else is getting. That’s why I try to stay away.
But I join scrums for certain things. When the police chief gave that press conference right after the raids in Etobicoke, I did go to that because I felt if I was there the chief would answer me. And I did ask a couple of key questions. I think it was good that I was there for that. But in general, I feel if I’m there Ford’s just going to ignore me or start yelling.
Tales from the Gulf War
Donovan recently told the Ryerson Review of Journalism about his most memorable experience as a journalist.
You’ve covered crime in the city off and on for a long time. Has the police force’s approach to media changed over that time?
When I talked to Deputy Chief Sloly at CP24, I raised that with him. I said I don’t know you at all but I’ve been doing this job for almost 30 years and things have changed. With chiefs Marks, McCormack and even Boothby, I was able to go in as a young reporter and talk to them.
Before Mark Pugash there was this wonderful woman named Adrienne McLennan. She was not a gatekeeper. Mark, he’s a nice guy, but he runs the communication there and you can’t get anything without his approval. I don’t think that it’s just rose-coloured glasses.
I honestly think things changed at some point around the mid-nineties. To that point, I had many police officers who were sources I could go talk to about stuff. We used to get police to dig up information and run plates for us, stuff like that. When the computers came in, the problem was when you ran a plate it showed up against your badge number. And so all the sudden cops understandably didn’t want to get caught helping out a reporter. So it has changed.
It’s not just policing that’s changed. It’s changed in so many different areas where you try to get information and want to talk to the manager somewhere and end up having to talk to public relations. But, I must say with the City of Toronto my experience is that while you may end up at first talking to the public relations person about a sensitive issue, they will get the appropriate boss to talk to, and I really like that about them.
Some other institutions—the TTC, I’ve had some really good experiences with them over the years. It will be a sensitive issue and they may start you with PR, but then they’ll get you the right person. And ornge, Mazza and his culture are gone. They’re much better. If there was something happening right now I’d be able to get the doctor who heads it now on the phone. So some organizations are getting better, but the police not so much.
Do you think it’s in cops’ best interests to cooperate with media?
My interest is always in getting information, but when people do cooperate then all of the sudden you don’t dislike them. You think they’re trying to tell me the truth. But what happens now is they hide so much information. I think there are commanders out there who would love to talk to media. I bet they look at what’s in the papers and think geez, why didn’t they let us talk about that? In the early days of the Ford investigation, I did try to talk to Gary Giroux. But because of my role I never wanted it to turn into some sort of attempt to interview me. You see them in court and try and chat with them. I used to cover murders all the time. Unfortunately, most of the cops I knew are either retired or dead. Things change.
Do you ever feel sympathy for the people you’re investigating—guys like Ford?
No. When we found out he had cancer I felt sympathetic. But prior to that I didn’t feel any sympathy for him or for his brother. I’m sympathetic for the families that have had to endure this. I’m certainly sympathetic for Jian Ghomeshi’s mother and what she’s gone through. But I try and not let emotions impact me at all. I just want to get the information I can and publish the story. I think, I feel sympathy for people who are the victims of important people. But the person who’s the target, I want to be as level headed as I can and not be affected by emotion.
So Robyn Doolittle’s come out with Crazy Town. When are you writing your own book about Ford?
I’ve recently been thinking about that. I do think that there’s a story to tell that was not told by Crazy Town. But at the moment I’m working on my second mystery novel.
You have a lot on your plate. How do you unwind?
I’m a volunteer soccer coach. I’m involved in ski racing in the winter. And I just hang around with my family. I have a slight routine that involves a beer, cheese and crackers. That’s my end of the day ritual.
What comes to mind when you hear the following names connected to the Ford story?
Anthony Smith: student gunned down outside nightclub March 28, 2013, pictured with Ford outside 15 Windsor
Maybe in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s kind of an off the cuff comment, but I don’t think he was the arch villain, the big drug dealer, that some people have painted him to be.
Mohammed Farah: Dixon community activist, attempted to broker sale of crack video
I wish he was still talking to me. It was interesting that he had this secret role at the start. He then told, in my opinion, some tall tales to the CBC about men with bags of cash walking around the Dixon projects looking for the video. He’s a guy who thought he was doing the right thing, thought he could make some money doing it, but things just went horribly wrong for him.
Joe Warmington: Toronto Sun columnist, avid Ford supporter
Not my kind of journalist. He’s a character in the movie, that’s for sure. I know I’ve taken shots at Joe and he’s taken shots at me. But we actually did learn a lot of information about the Fords because of Joe’s access to him. But we wouldn’t tolerate having someone like that at the Star. I don’t think he’d survive at my newspaper. I used to listen to his radio show all the time. Now that Ford’s no longer mayor, I wonder what he has to talk about.
Sandro Lisi: close Ford friend, charged with extortion for alleged attempts to retrieve crack video
The words occasional driver.
Romeo DiBattista: businessman, Ford friend, former club owner
He almost ran over my foot with is big black car when I tried to interview him. I’m fascinated by his role. He’s a guy I’d really like to sit down with because I think he has a story to tell, certainly about the early parts of Mayor Ford’s regime and hanging out with him at the place on Bloor Street. Nobody else has picked up on his involvement. He’s one of these mysteries.
Robyn Doolittle: Globe and Mail reporter, former Star reporter, watched crack video with Donovan
Robyn was a valued member of the Toronto Star who decided to leave. It’s disappointing whenever someone decides to leave the Star family but I wish her well.