Nothing noble about paying for your own office expenses

“Rob Ford buys golden business cards from family firm” is a tempting headline, but I’m going to be the model of restraint and come at this from a slightly different angle.

Let’s start here: third quarter office expenses for councillors and the mayor were posted this past Friday. Office expenses are mostly boring — all toner and Blackberrys — but there’s always a story or two that emerges after they get released. For this round, that story was this: Rob Ford bought some business cards.

On the surface, this shouldn’t be a big deal. Ford loves business cards. Handing out his card is the first thing he does when he meets someone. It’s like his super awkward version of the fist bump. And it even makes sense that he’d look to an outside printer for his stock of cards, as the city’s in-house business cards are kind of cheap looking.

But here’s the problem: When Rob Ford went to buy his business cards, he decided to buy them from Deco Labels. Deco Labels is the printing business started by his father. The mayor still has a title there, and when elected he said he would still be doing some work for the firm. A released version of his schedule from earlier this year showed him devoting full days to work at the company. So by buying these cards — a premium product with some nice gold embossing — Rob Ford essentially did business with himself.

That’s not a good idea.

Chris MacDonald at BusinessWeek dismissed Councillor Josh Matlow’s opinion that this incident amounts to a “perceived conflict of interest,” writing instead that, actually, it’s a “bona fide conflict of interest.” No bones about it: politicians should shy away from doing business with companies that they have a stake in.

Yesterday, of course, we got the requisite backtracking. Ford’s office told the Toronto Sun that the mayor will pony up the cash for the business cards out of his own pocket. And to really sweeten the deal, he’ll also pay for the newspaper subscriptions his office bought in April. (The mayor’s team gets them all, even the one whose reporters they won’t talk to.)

This is a ridiculous response that totally misses the point. There’s nothing noble about paying for office expenses out of your own pocket. All it demonstrates is that certain politicians are, in fact, rather wealthy and can afford to put their money forward for things that should rightly be provided by the organizations they work for. By holding this kind of thing up as virtuous, we’re aggrandizing personal wealth and turning it into a political tool.

Suddenly the candidate who inherited his father’s successful printing business is preferable to the other guy, who wasn’t so lucky. Because the first guy will be paying for his own damn staples while the second will be billing you, the taxpayer, for the cost.

This is, ultimately, a news item with a small price tag attached to it. A $1600 bill for mayoral business cards is not a thing that should be commanding our attention, especially when items like a broken transit plan and looming labour strife are bubbling under the surface, but there’s a troubling precedent here. Rob Ford may have respect for taxpayers, but how about respecting the rules in place to protect taxpayers from corruption and shady dealings?

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