Mayor John Tory is rejecting accusations of improper links between his office and Uber, after an international journalism investigation revealed details of the aggressive lobbying push the ride-hailing company unleashed on city hall as it tried to force its way 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 as it attempted to skirt local regulations and set up in cities around the world about seven years ago.
According to an email included in the leak, despite controversy at the time over Uber’s tactics, after an early 2015 meeting with members of the mayor’s office Tory’s staffers assured the company the mayor was “a fan,” and while he wouldn’t accept a “Wild West,” he was open to regulations that would allow ride-hailing in the city.
With Tory’s support, council would go on to approve new rules in 2016 that mirrored goals Uber laid out in the internal documents, including not classifying the company as a taxi brokerage or initially requiring mandatory training for its drivers.
In a statement Monday, RideFairTO, a group that advocates for stricter regulation of Uber and other app-based ride services, said the investigation “sheds a devastating light on the tech giant’s influence over Toronto’s mayor and city council.”
RideFairTO alleged that “channels” between the mayor’s office and Uber are evidence of “how closely the billion-dollar company’s staff and lobbyists worked with (Tory)” to enact policies friendly to Uber. The group says those policies paved the way for a ride-hailing boom that has increased Toronto traffic congestion, worsened road safety, weakened labour standards, and hollowed out public transit ridership.
The links the group cites include John Duffy, who was a top aide on Tory’s 2014 mayoral campaign and worked as an external lobbyist for Uber in 2015 and 2016. RideFairTO also cited Keerthana Rang, who was senior manager of communications in Tory’s office from 2015 to 2018, and worked on his 2018 campaign. Seven months ago she joined Uber Canada and is now corporate communications lead for the company.
Other instances of people working for both the mayor and Uber include Courtney Glen, who after serving as a deputy communications director on the mayor’s 2014 campaign worked as an external lobbyist for the company in 2015. In late 2018 Glen returned to city hall and is now Tory’s deputy chief of staff.
According to the city lobbyist registry, Uber also hired Campaign Support, a direct marketing firm, in 2015. Nick Kouvalis, a pollster who has worked on Tory’s election campaigns, is a director at the company.
In a statement, Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat rejected any suggestion that these connections had any influence on the mayor’s handling of the Uber file, and said “on this matter and all matters before city council, the mayor has at all times conducted himself with integrity and with a focus on ensuring the best public policy founded on safety and choice.”
Peat said that by the time Tory took office in 2014, Uber already had 300,000 users in Toronto, and the mayor “worked to find a consensus on council which recognized ride-sharing was here to stay.”
He said under Tory’s leadership, Toronto became one of the first cities in North America to regulate ride-hailing, and since then the mayor has supported updates to strengthen the regulations.
Given the contentiousness of the issue, it wasn’t unusual for the mayor’s office to be lobbied from all sides, including the taxi industry that was opposed to Uber, Peat said. In all cases, “the mayor has followed all rules put in place.”
A Star analysis shows that since 2013, Uber contacted city officials and council members more than 4,700 times, and since Tory’s election, its lobbyists have logged more contacts with the mayor’s office than all taxi companies, industry groups and taxi worker organizations combined.
Asked via email whether Uber had ever attempted to use former Tory staffers, including herself, to improperly influence the mayor’s office, Rang issued a one-word statement: “No.”
The company says it follows all of the city’s lobbying rules.
Glen said she has never used her connections in the mayor’s office to improperly advance Uber’s interests. “At all times, I have been in full compliance with all relevant rules and regulations and I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a campaign volunteer, a corporate adviser and … as Mayor Tory’s deputy chief of staff,” she said.
Richard Ciano, who is a principal at Campaign Support, said in an email the company set up telephone townhalls for Uber executives and Toronto residents, which can be considered a form of lobbying under city rules. “We did not meet with or call any office holder,” he said.
Toronto’s integrity commissioner investigated Uber’s connections to the mayor’s office in 2016, following a complaint focused on Duffy and Kouvalis. She concluded there was no evidence Tory did anything wrong, or had sought to improperly benefit Uber or his former aide.
But she found that a former campaign staffer lobbying the mayor’s office on behalf of Uber could give rise to the “reasonable perception” that the mayor’s office might give “preferred treatment” to someone who helped him get elected.
She noted that such perceptions “can be harmful to the public’s trust in government,” and recommended council members act with “caution” and in some cases refuse 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 Administration, who has studied Uber’s effect on cities, said there’s no evidence staffers switching between the mayor’s office and lobbying for the company led Toronto to water down ride-hailing regulations.
He said the rules Toronto instituted are no weaker than those set up by most other North American cities, which suggests Uber didn’t wield any undue influence over the mayor’s office.
“I don’t think we can point to that and say, this is the reason 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 a concern for many citizens.”
While he stressed he had no knowledge of whether Uber used Tory’s former staffers to weaken regulations, he said it’s only logical to believe that “if you worked for Tory and then you go and work for Uber … you’re going to have a privileged access, very likely, to the decision-makers.”
That could lead to the perception that important city policies are being influenced “by the lobbyists for the industry, rather than what is good for citizens,” he said.
With files from Sara Mojtehedzadeh
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