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The Gravy Train: A Look Back At City Hall's Wildest Spending Scandal

Gravy train – noun Slang – a position in which a person or group receives excessive and unjustified money or advantages with little or no effort: The top executives were on the gravy train with their huge bonuses. (dictionary.com)

It’s a term we’ve heard ad nauseam during the mayoral election, with long-time penny-pinching councillor Rob Ford utilizing it at every available opportunity to further drive home his spirited aversion to misuse of taxpayers’ money. As evidenced by recent polls, Ford’s message has resonated with a large number of voters, who’ve grown weary of the perceived tax-and-spend culture that the burly candidate has vowed to stamp out at City Hall.

Ford has gone as far as to accuse certain councillors of “spending like drunken sailors”, with many eating up nearly all of their allotted office budgets.

His bold accusations gained a measure of credence after several instances of questionable spending were made public.

Adam Giambrone made headlines after he hit the city up for a tab of nearly $4,000 for French lessons. Even more grating to many was the TTC Chair’s spending of nearly $3,000 on cabs.

Karen Stintz expensed $2,650 for public speaking lessons.

Kyle Rae threw himself a retirement party at a cost of $12,000. He also once submitted a receipt (split between 6 councillors) for $1,039 worth of Pride Parade beads.

And who can forget when Sandra Bussin found the media spotlight for expensing a $205 bunny suit?

All of these instances garnered a certain degree of public backlash and a growing resentment, but according to local political writer Mark Maloney, who is writing a book on Toronto’s mayoral history, nothing has ever come close to former mayor Allan Lamport’s lavish spending spree in the early 1950s.

Wildly popular and charismatic, Lamport, who fought for Sunday sports and cocktail lounges when both were prohibited, was also the man at the centre of what Maloney calls Toronto’s ‘Scandal of the Century’.

“Allan Lamport went to the Royal York hotel and arranged to get a suite given to him free of charge from the hotel, suite 1735, but it was on the proviso that he would spend liberally on food, room service, booze, parties, you name it, so he did,” Maloney reveals.

“So for two years he partied in the room, but all the bills were sent to the City Clerk, the City of Toronto, because Lamport had booked the suite under the City Clerk’s name.  But Lamport had never gone to city council for authorization to spend any money, and he had never gotten any council approval, which today would be absolutely unheard of.  So for two years he spent what would today be the equivalent of $370,000 on parties!”

In a cruel twist of irony, it would be his successor, incumbent mayor Leslie Saunders, who would unfairly take the majority of the heat once word of the spending came to light and became the boiling issue at the epicentre of the next election.

“What happened was the mayor who succeeded him took the rap and the reason was Allan Lamport had left by that time to go to the Toronto Transit Commission to be the vice chair…so Saunders was facing re-election and he was not too popular because he made some anti-Catholic slurs and Catholics were not too happy. So it came up about 3 or 4 days before the election happened, someone raised the question, “Was Toronto being run from the Royal York hotel in this shadowy, private, hidden suite by a clique of citizens?” So Saunders, who wasn’t in the loop, said “Suite? What suite? I don’t know anything about a suite!”

No one believed Saunders and with the help of a loose-lipped hotel chambermaid and some investigative digging, the hedonistic details soon surfaced.

“It became an election issue and the newspapers of the day printed every receipt, like champagne and liquers, you name it, on the front page of all the daily newspapers in Toronto, it was a huge scandal. It was the MFP scandal of the 20th Century.”

“Nathan Phillips then got elected very narrowly on a platform that he would look into it and clean it up and kind of fix matters. It came out eventually, but Lamport didn’t really take the rap for it.”

A judicial inquiry was called but it quickly lost steam once Phillips, noted for his prudence, took office.  With public interest waning, it was eventually called off.

“There was nothing mysterious about this suite,” Lamport was quoted as saying in the surprisingly quiet aftermath. “It was none of anyone’s business. I don’t think any mayor should be called upon to make explanations for his actions.”