TORONTO (Reuters) - Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a target of criticism for his often unconventional conduct, on Friday denied media allegations that he had been caught on video smoking crack cocaine.
“Absolutely not true,” Ford told reporters gathered outside his west Toronto house, before driving off in his SUV.
Reporters for the Toronto Star and Gawker Media said late on Thursday they had watched a cellphone video that appears to show Ford smoking crack, although both news outlets said they had declined to pay the $100,000 price asked by the tipsters, people that the Star said were involved in the Toronto drug trade.
Reuters could not confirm the existence of the video and it is not clear what impact the allegations will have on Ford’s position as mayor of Canada’s largest city.
The mayor still has an approval rating of around 50 percent despite a series of negative headlines, although that’s down from 70 percent in the year after he took power, according to Forum Research.
A Toronto Police spokesman said police are “closely monitoring the situation.”
Ford’s lawyer, Dennis Morris, did not return Reuters’ requests for comment.
“We’re just trying to see whether or not such a video exists and whether or not any video has been doctored or altered,” Morris told the Toronto Sun newspaper.
Asked if Ford planned legal action, Morris said it is at the “bottom rung of the ladder” now.
Gawker is asking for donations in what it has labeled a “Crackstarter” campaign to raise $200,000 to buy the video and post it online. It says it has already raised $28,000.
Ford, 43, was elected in 2010 on a promise to “stop the gravy train” at City Hall. But he has frequently attracted unfavorable news coverage, including for a conflict of interest case that almost cost him his job, a photograph of him reading documents while driving on the freeway, and an altercation with a reporter on a patch of land outside his house.
At City Hall on Friday, Ford initially brushed past reporters, only to return to deliver a very brief statement.
“These allegations are ridiculous, another story with respect to the Toronto Star going after me,” Ford said. “And that’s all I’ve got to say for now.”
He did not reply when asked if he believed the video was faked.
The Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, said it stands by its reporting and the story is one piece of a broader investigative report that it has been working on for months.
“This isn’t a story that we’re going to report lightly,” said Robyn Doolittle, one of two Toronto Star reporters who said they had watched the video three times.
She added: “The Toronto Star has a high bar that we always make sure we meet before we run something, especially when it comes to this mayor.”
Doolittle said the paper never intended to pay for the video but did engage in discussions about “numbers” in an attempt to see it. She said the men trying to sell the video first wanted C$1 million ($975,000) but then dropped the price to C$100,000.
Ford and his older brother Doug, a city councilor who often speaks on Ford’s behalf, have a mostly hostile relationship with Toronto’s news media, and a particularly rocky relationship with the Star.
Gawker, first to publish the cocaine allegations, did so after the existence of the video began to leak out, said the site’s editor-in-chief, John Cook. “I am confident that I saw Rob Ford smoking crack in that video,” Cook said.
Speaking early on Friday, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, told reporters he stands by the mayor.
“Certainly, at this point, we all know that videos can be altered and we certainly know that drug dealers can’t be trusted,” he said at Toronto City Hall.
This is hardly the first controversy for Ford, who has drawn criticism for skipping city council meetings to coach high-school football and engaging in a confrontation outside his home with a reporter.
He was briefly ordered out of office in 2012 after he was found guilty of conflict of interest, but won an appeal and was allowed to finish his four-year term.
Just two months ago, the Star reported that Toronto City Councilor Paul Ainslie had asked Ford to leave a charity function after several people complained the mayor was impaired.
Ford called that story an “outright lie”.
These controversies have eaten into Ford’s popularity, although he still enjoys support from significant chunk of the population, mostly in Toronto’s suburbs.
Editing by Janet Guttsman, Ciro Scotti and Tim Dobbyn