TORONTO (Reuters) - Toronto's Rob Ford, a magnet for controversy during two years as mayor of Canada's largest city, was ordered out of office on Monday after a judge found him guilty of breaking conflict-of-interest laws.
Ontario Superior Court Judge Charles Hackland ruled Ford acted wrongly when he voted at city council to scrap a fine imposed on him for accepting donations to his football foundation from lobbyists.
Ford, who says he plans to appeal the ruling, is one of several Canadian municipal leaders to land in hot water in recent weeks.
The mayors of Montreal and Laval, Quebec, quit earlier this month after allegations made against their administrations in a high-profile inquiry into corruption in Quebec. Both deny wrongdoing. The mayor of London, Ontario, has denied fraud charges leveled against him and has not resigned.
In Ford's case, the judge gave him 14 days to leave office but did not bar him from running in a new election for Toronto mayor, opening the door to more political in-fighting.
"I'll fight with the appeal and if I lose, there will be a by-election and I guarantee I'll be the first one in there," said Ford, who blamed the ruling on "left-wing politics" in a divided city hall.
Ford, a larger-than-life figure who has courted controversy for skipping council meetings to coach high-school football, won power on a promise to "stop the gravy train" at city hall. But cutting costs without cutting services has been harder than he expected, and his popularity has fallen steeply.
Ford has 30 days to appeal the ruling and can apply for a stay of the decision in order to remain in office after the 14 days the judge gave him. If he loses on both counts, city council can either appoint a caretaker mayor until the end of his term in December 2014, or call a special election.
Ford is also fighting a C$6 million ($6 million) libel court case over comments he made about corruption at city hall during his 2010 campaign for mayor, and his campaign finances are being audited. The penalty in the audit case could also include removal from office.
"Today's decision shows that when you break the rules, there's a price to pay," said prominent Canadian defense lawyer Clayton Ruby, who argued the case against Ford.
The mayor has also grabbed headlines for reading while driving on a city expressway, for calling the police when a comedian tried to film a segment for a popular TV show outside his home, and for an angry confrontation outside his home with a city hall reporter for Toronto's biggest newspaper.
As well, he faced intense scrutiny after media reports that city resources were being used to help administer the high-school football team he coaches.
The conflict-of-interest saga began in 2010 when Ford, then a city councillor, used city letterhead to solicit donations for his private football charity for underprivileged children.
Toronto's integrity commissioner ordered Ford to repay the C$3,150 the charity received from lobbyists and companies that do business with the city, as those donations breached code of conduct rules.
Ford refused to repay the money, and in February 2012 he took part in a city council debate on the matter and then voted in favor of removing the sanctions against him.
He pleaded not guilty in September, stating that he believed there was no conflict of interest as there was no financial benefit for the city.
"If it benefits the city and it benefits a member of council, then you have a conflict, and this did not benefit the city at all," Ford said. "This was a personal issue about my foundation and it had nothing to do with the city."
John Mascarin, lawyer and municipal law expert at law firm Aird and Berlis LLP, said he did not believe Ford would win his appeal, or be eligible to run in a by-election.
The process could take several months until appeals are concluded, Mascarin said, and Ford will remain in office "with a target on his back because he knows he's gone".
Additional reporting by Julie Gordon and Cameron French; Editing by Janet Guttsman, Leslie Gevirtz, Russ Blinch and Peter Galloway