Former Varsity Blues quarterback Andrew Gillis found himself at the centre of controversy at City Hall last week, when an exclusive investigation by The Globe and Mail found that Gillis was one of several staff hired by mayor Rob Ford whose duties seem to include coaching football teams.
The revelations by the Globe came just one week after Ford testified under oath that he had ceased all use of taxpayer-funded resources in relation to his volunteer involvement with football coaching.
“I did use my staff [for football-related activities] and I was wrong to do that,” Ford said during his appearance before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. “That’s been rectified numerous years ago,” he added.
But as recently as last Tuesday, Gillis’ activities included assisting Ford in leading the Don Bosco Eagles in a practice beginning mid-afternoon at the Etobicoke high school.
Gillis was hired as a “special assistant” to the mayor last year. Special assistants are the most junior staff in the mayor’s office. Their salaries are not publicly disclosed.
At the time of his hiring, Gillis had finished his fifth season with the Blues and graduated with a major in urbanism.
Gillis was involved in efforts to turn around the Blues’ fortunes, breaking a 49-game losing streak in October 2008 and winning the accolade for best offensive player in Canadian Interuniversity Sport in 2010.
A self-professed football fanatic, Ford has been known to occasionally attend Varsity Blues games, including the 2012 home opener earlier this month.
Although it remains unclear whether Gillis’ coaching duties with Ford were undertaken on a volunteer basis or as an official component of his job, the Blues have a history of donating time and effort to community improvement through such initiatives as the Huddle Up Bullying Program, the University of Toronto United Way Campaign, and helping move incoming freshman into residences during Frosh Week.
Requests for comment from Blues management went unanswered as of press time.
In addition to Gillis, two of Ford’s “special assistants,” Chris Fickel and Isaac Shirokoff, were listed with contact information on the Facebook group for the Rexdale Raiders, one of the teams patronized by Ford. The cell phone numbers listed have since been confirmed as official City Hall phone lines, meaning the bill is footed by taxpayers.
Ford, who played football for Carleton University, promised during his mayoral campaign that he would cease his coaching efforts at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School if he won the election. After his victory in December 2010, he continued coaching and even expanded his involvement. Ford started the Rexdale Raiders in 2011.
Since the revelation, the mayor’s communications team have prevented Gillis and the other staffers in question from speaking with press, in spite of initial signs that they might be permitted to provide details about their involvement with the football teams.
“We’ll get these two folks out, they’ll clear the air and then I’d like to see what they say after that,” said Doug Ford in an interview with AM640’s John Oakley. But by Thursday, the Fords had backtracked from the plan.
“That will not happen,” Rob Ford’s press secretary George Christopoulos told the press.
Neither the mayor nor his spokesperson has confirmed whether staffers like Gillis were involved in coaching duties on a strictly voluntary basis. Instead, on Wednesday, Ford released a statement suggesting that journalists criticizing Ford’s staff were “cowards.”
“I’m okay if councillors want to criticize me for helping kids. That’s their right,” said Ford. “I’m a big guy and I can take it.
“However, councillors should not be criticizing my staff. Each and every one of them works hard every day for the taxpayers of this great city. They put in at least 40 hours of work for taxpayers every week. Often more.
“Only a coward would criticize my staff. They can’t defend themselves in the media against elected officials.”