Toronto Mayor rejects accusations of improper links between his office and Uber

Mayor John Tory is rejecting accusations of improper links between his office and Uber, after an international journalistic investigation revealed details of the aggressive lobbying the ride-sharing company unleashed on City Hall as it tried to break into the Toronto market.

The investigation, which was based on thousands of internal company documents leaked to The Guardian newspaper and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Toronto Star, detailed the strategy Uber used when it tried to circumvent local regulations and set in cities around the world about seven years ago.

According to an email included in the leak, despite the controversy at the time over Uber’s tactics, after a meeting in early 2015 with members of the mayor’s office, Tory’s staff assured the company that the mayor he was “a fanatic” and while he wouldn’t accept a “Wild West” he was open to regulations that would allow ride-sharing in the city.

With Tory’s support, the council would go on to pass new rules in 2016 that reflected goals Uber set out in internal documents, including not classifying the company as a taxi broker or initially requiring mandatory training for its drivers.

In a statement Monday, RideFairTO, a group that advocates for tighter regulation of Uber and other app-based ride services, said the investigation “sheds a devastating light on the tech giant’s influence over the mayor and the Toronto City Hall”.

RideFairTO alleged that the “channels” between the mayor’s office and Uber are evidence of “how closely the multibillion-dollar company’s staff and lobbyists worked with (Tory)” to enact policies favorable to Uber. The group says those policies paved the way for a ride-sharing boom that has increased traffic congestion in Toronto, worsened road safety, weakened labor standards and depleted public transit ridership.

Links the group cites include John Duffy, who was a top aid in Tory’s 2014 mayoral campaign and worked as an outside lobbyist for Uber in 2015 and 2016. RideFairTO also cited Keerthana Rang, who was a manager. senior communications officer in Tory’s office from 2015 to 2018, and worked on her 2018 campaign. She joined Uber Canada seven months ago and is now the company’s corporate communications lead.

Other cases of people working for both the mayor and Uber include Courtney Glen, who after serving as deputy communications director on the mayor’s 2014 campaign, worked as an outside lobbyist for the company in 2015. As of late 2018, Glen returned to city hall and is now Tory’s Deputy Chief of Staff.

According to the city’s lobbyist registry, Uber also hired Campaign Support, a direct marketing company, in 2015. Nick Kouvalis, a pollster who has worked on Tory election campaigns, is a director of the company.

In a statement, Tory spokesman Don Peat dismissed any suggestion that these connections had any influence on the mayor’s handling of the Uber file, saying “on this matter and all matters before the city council, the mayor has behaved at all times with integrity and with a focus on ensuring the best public policy based on security and choice.”

Peat said that when Tory took office in 2014, Uber already had 300,000 users in Toronto, and the mayor “worked to find a council consensus that recognized ride sharing is here to stay.”

He said that under Tory’s leadership, Toronto became one of the first cities in North America to regulate ridesharing, and the mayor has since supported updates to strengthen regulations.

Given the contentiousness of the issue, it was not unusual for the mayor’s office to come under pressure from all sides, including from the taxi industry that opposed Uber, Peat said. In all cases, “the mayor has followed all the established rules.”

An analysis by Star shows that since 2013, Uber has contacted city officials and council members more than 4,700 times, and since Tory’s election, its lobbyists have recorded more contacts with the mayor’s office than all taxi companies, industry groups and combined taxi worker organizations.

Asked by email if Uber had ever attempted to use former Tory staff members, including herself, to improperly influence the mayor’s office, Rang issued a one-word statement: “No.”

The company says it follows all city lobbying rules.

Glen said he never used his connections in the mayor’s office to improperly advance Uber’s interests. “At all times, I have fully complied with all relevant rules and regulations and I am proud of the work I have done as a campaign volunteer, corporate consultant and… as Mayor Tory’s deputy chief of staff,” she said. .

Richard Ciano, who is director of Campaign Support, said in an email that the company has set up conference calls for Uber executives and Torontonians, which can be considered a form of lobbying under city rules. “We didn’t meet or call any officials,” he said.

Toronto’s integrity commissioner investigated Uber’s connections to the mayor’s office in 2016, following a complaint centered on Duffy and Kouvalis. She concluded that there was no evidence that Tory had done anything wrong or that he had tried to improperly benefit Uber or his former assistant.

But he found that a former campaign employee lobbying the mayor’s office on behalf of Uber could lead to the “reasonable perception” that the mayor’s office might give “preferential treatment” to someone who helped him get elected.

He noted that such perceptions “can be detrimental to public confidence in government.” and council members recommended exercising “caution” and, in some cases, rejecting such lobbying efforts.

Duffy, who died earlier this year, told the integrity commissioner that in June 2015 he decided to stop lobbying the mayor’s office on behalf of any of his clients.

Zachary Spicer, an associate professor at York University’s School of Public Policy and Management who has studied Uber’s effect on cities, said there is no evidence that shifting personnel between the mayor’s office and lobbying by the company has led Toronto to water down ridesharing regulations.

He said the rules instituted by Toronto are no weaker than those set by most other North American cities, suggesting that Uber did not exert any undue influence on the mayor’s office.

“I don’t think we can point to that and say, this is why the regulations are the way they are,” Spicer said.

But Robert MacDermid, professor emeritus at York’s politics department, said the crossover between the mayor’s office and Uber should “be of concern to many citizens.”

While he stressed that he didn’t know if Uber used former Tory employees to weaken regulations, he said it stands to reason that “if you worked for Tory and then you go and work for Uber… you’re going to have privileged access.” , most likely, to those who make the decisions”.

That could lead to the perception that important city policies are being influenced “by industry lobbyists, rather than what’s good for citizens,” he said.

With files from Sara Mojtehedzadeh

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter who covers city hall and city politics for the Star. Contact him via email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr


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