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Defending the Mayor

What we know about Dennis Morris, the man Rob Ford calls "the best criminal lawyer in Canada."


No doubt you’ve heard of Mayor Rob Ford’s criminal lawyer, Dennis Morris.

His client’s crack-smoking timeline is in the news again, thanks to the release of another ITO, the document that the police use to get court orders. And Morris is, too.

This time, the ITO doesn’t tell us a lot more than we knew already, but a few tidbits will help feed those with a crack-mayor addiction like, well, OK, like pretty much all of us.

Foremost among them was the revelation that over a week-long period early last November, the police offered the mayor and his lawyer an opportunity to look at the crack video for themselves.

“Baloney,” Morris told CP24. It was a baloney offer.

In criminal law circles, this is known as the baloney defence, or as we lawyers sometimes like to call it, using its original, Latin name, “la balogna panino”.

The question many have is, why would Morris call this seemingly generous offer baloney? After all, this was and still is a piece of confidential evidence crucial to the future trial of Ford drinking buddy Sandro Lisi. In addition, Morris’s client has not yet been charged with anything. He may be one day, but until he is, he has no right right to view the fruits of a police investigation.

Morris says that he declined the offer because it came with too many strings attached; namely, that he and Ford agree not to discuss it with anyone, since it had not yet been presented in open court.

To put this demand in context—the crack video is a key piece of evidence in the extortion charge against Sandro Lisi. Without it, the police would have a hard time proving that Lisi threatened somebody over the existence of an object that Ford denied even existed until his hand was forced by Chief Blair. The police and the Crown do not want the pool of potential jurors to be tainted by comments made by people like Ford or Morris as to what it contains—comments that could affect not only how it is perceived by jurors when it’s presented in court, but also what witnesses will ultimately say in a trial. It’s perhaps being overly cautious, but it’s perfectly reasonable: after all, Morris was upset when Chief Blair said that he was even “disappointed” by what he saw.

Not only that, but conditions are always attached to viewing police evidence. Lawyers deal with them every day in court when they receive copies of Crown evidence. In a case with major exposure like Rob Ford’s, all the more reason to be careful, since the police do not want to be accused of having been negligent.

So why might Dennis Morris advise Rob Ford not to view the tape?

First of all, viewing the tape would require the mayor to actually step into a police station, something he has studiously avoided doing since this story broke. And for good reason: if there is one thing that’s tough to control, it’s Rob Ford’s mouth. From shooting it off in the Steak Queen to calling the media maggots for pursuing a true story, this is a guy you might not want to trust in the same room as the police. Better safe than sorry.

Secondly, it’s possible that the police wanted to observe the mayor before, perhaps during, and definitely after he saw evidence of himself committing a crime. His conduct, anything he said, and his reaction could all be pieces of evidence that tell a story to a jury if he was charged with an offence. Even silence can speak volumes.

We know that the mayor has refused to help the police investigate crimes related to the crack video. Some might think that represents a betrayal of his civic duty as the chief magistrate of this city—that as soon as he was put in a position of having to choose between his own interests and those of the city, he should have resigned.

Regardless though, it makes a lot of sense from a legal point of view for Morris to advise the mayor not to cooperate with the police, even by looking at the video. Simply put, the mayor had committed at least one crime, and Morris wouldn’t want to expose him to any further jeopardy.

What’s strange about Morris’s role in this situation is that he seems to function as more than Ford’s legal advisor—sometimes appearing to be almost a spokesperson for the mayor’s views. He actually called the mayor the victim in this case during his interview with CP24.

It’s possible Morris has adopted the Ford worldview here, which sees the entire police investigation as illegitimate. Through his drug use and association with unsavoury characters, Ford put himself in the situation that led to the crack video’s being put on the media market—which in turn set in motion a series of events that allegedly includes a shooting, a shakedown, and extortion by Ford’s closest associate, Sandro Lisi. Yet to Morris, Ford is the victim.

The other disconnect here is that we all know what is on that video. The new ITO describes the mayor talking as he exhales, holding a crack pipe in one hand and a lighter in the other. If Ford saw that video, he’d have to give up one more complaint that he’s been using to smear the police investigation. And so would Morris.

So who is Dennis Morris, anyway? The mayor has called him as “the best criminal lawyer in Canada.” The last time Morris had Ford as a criminal client was in 2008, when he had then-councillor Ford’s assault charge against his wife, Renata, dismissed.

Over the past ten months, Toronto has become more acquainted with Morris. From suggesting that Ford might have been smoking tobacco or marijuana out of a crack pipe to calling on the chief of police to resign, he has become a regular fixture in crazy town.

If he were truly the best, you’d expect him to have a track record that echoes some of the greats. Eddie Greenspan comes to mind, or younger brother Brian. Cross the border, and you have people like F. Lee Bailey, Johnnie Cochran, and Gerry Spence. Spence is a legend—he famously never lost a trial as a defence lawyer or prosecutor.

But this “best lawyer in Canada” label comes from Rob Ford and, not surprisingly, Morris’s reputation doesn’t appear to shine quite as bright as those legal stars.

One of his most famous cases was one that, for him, didn’t go to court at all. In 2004, he returned a piece of stolen art to the Art Gallery of Ontario on behalf of a client who remained nameless. Apart from that, there’s not much reported about the mayor’s go-to on criminal law. If you search the web, you’ll find almost nothing that doesn’t include the name Rob Ford. And his name pops up only five times on CanLII, an online database that reports most criminal law judgments.

But don’t tell that to Rob, for whom bragging is an art. He says he is the best mayor Toronto has ever had, and his brother Doug is going be premier some day.

Really, it’s a relief that he didn’t call Morris the best criminal lawyer in the world.


  • OgtheDim

    Umm….the link gives his name 7 times on CanLII, and none mention Ford. It ain’t much but your idea that he only deals with Ford is kinda not proven.

    • ReadandFeed

      The article says if you search the web, you’ll find his name associated with Ford’s. It doesn’t say you’ll find Ford’s name on CanLII

    • Daniel Stein

      Two of the seven cases that are reported on the Canlii link are ones where a person named Dennis Morris was named in the judgment but was not counsel. There are five with him as counsel.

      To my main point though, it’s one indication of the kind of practice Dennis seems to have had, at least for the past decade or so during which Canlii has become more prominent.

      • OgtheDim

        Oh, I get your second point.

  • dsmithhfx

    Someone should commission R. Crumb to do a comic book about the Fords and their associates.

    • robert reid

      It’s more like a four year long Monty Python skit happening in real time

    • DaveWilliamscheemissManana

      Well, it is a Toronto-centric story, so how about Chester Brown?

      • dsmithhfx

        Two things:

        1. They both have strange imaginations, but that’s not really needed here (the truth is far stranger than), and I think Crumb has the edge in treating this kind of complex story, I think of him as approaching Thomas Nast, in the power of his draftsmanship. See his illustrations of Charles Bukowski stories.

        2. Rob’s achieved international notoriety that transcends parochial interest, and his recent visits to LA/Hollywood seals it, IMO.

  • Sean_Marshall

    Something that I would have liked to read was whether Dennis Morris is or was part of a larger law firm, or if he’s an independent lawyer working out of a small storefront or second-floor office. He’s known among Ford-watchers as the “Hotmail lawyer.” Even as a small time independent criminal lawyer, he could set up a company, call it “Morris and Associates” and have a website with its own email domain – it doesn’t take much to create a facade of professional success.

    • DaveWilliamscheemissManana

      True. So why does Rob Ford’s website look like it was designed by the bastard child of Anita Bryant and Bob C. Dobbs?

      • ReadandFeed

        Hey, they got the best webmaster in the world, which is only fitting for the best mayor ever who has the best criminal lawyer in Canada … do I see a pattern here?

    • McKingford

      Most criminal lawyers, even most of the very best, operate in small firms or as sole practitioners. This isn’t really a good measure of a criminal lawyer’s ability or competence. I don’t say this to defend Morris – just that there are lots of other good reasons to doubt his “rank” as the best lawyer in the country.

  • bobloblawbloblawblah

    “From suggesting that Ford might have been smoking tobacco or marijuana out of a crack pipe………”

    A ridiculous notion to be sure, but even if he were smoking tobacco the Mayor needs to answer the question: ” why were you hanging out with gang-bangers at a known crack house?” Ford has yet to answer questions regarding the number of friends he has with unsavoury and criminal backgrounds. He claims to be a staunch supporter of front line cops and against gang violence(as we saw in 2012 after the Danzig St. shootings) but he’s associating with guys who would pull a gun out and shoot into a crowd of innocent people at a mall? There’s a great deal more that Ford isn’t addressing besides the use of crack. The man’s hypocrisy in this regard demands his resignation.

  • hawk777

    He’s the best criminal lawyer in the same way Rob’s the best mayor ever.

    • robert reid

      And if you believe either of those two statements you’ve been smoking something stronger than Rob!

    • nastybrutishshort

      “So, is he a criminal lawyer?” …
      “Yes! very!”

  • ModernLife

    For some reason I’m reminded of Jessie Pinkman’s “You don’t need a criminal lawyer…” comment on Breaking Bad.

  • vampchick21

    “Hutz is the name, Mr. Simpson. Lionel Hutz, attorney at law. Here’s my card. It turns into a sponge when you put it in water.”

    • ArnieGeddon

      “Mrs. Simpson, I have appeared before every judge in the state – and often, as a lawyer!”

  • dsmithhfx

    Rob Ford endorsing a lawyer’s gotta be like Donald Trump endorsing a hair stylist.

    • TheSotSays

      You use a lot of pretentious words but you need to do some work on your similes.

  • Timmy

    “And his name pops up only five times on CanLII, an online database that reports most criminal law judgments.”

    Ummmm… not even close. CanLII reports the “leading” and “reported” cases, and reasonable coverage of the rest starting about 2002. Prior to that, you have very small coverage of non-leading and non-reported cases. Example: only 1279 cases from the Ontario Court of Justice prior to 2004 have made it into CanLII so far. (Note that “leading” and “reported” both have specific legal meanings in this context.)

    Not disputing the intent of your statement, but it’s a very weak argument to rely on CanLII’s coverage of someone’s work as a measure of how many cases they’ve actually taken to court. Not to mention that court is a last resort for most lawyers, as it’s a huge waste of time and leads to massive bills for single clients – it’s far more likely that a lawyer can collect on 5 bills of $5,000 each than a single bill of $25,000, and usually those massive bills will be at least somewhat reduced to make payment likelier. Settling at any point before a court date is preferred by almost every lawyer.

  • Timmy

    As an example about my previous comment: CanLII reports 7336 Ontario Court of Justice (OCJ) cases since 1968. OCJ hears 590,000 criminal cases *per year*.

    • Daniel Stein

      You seem to concede the point somewhat in your previous comment. In the last decade, Canlii has become pretty comprehensive in reporting caselaw.

      In trying to get a picture of a person’s criminal law practice, reported judgments are one of the things we can go on. Eddie Greenspan, for example, has about 50-60 on Canlii, although he has slowed down in the past ten years.

      Judgments also tell you the cases a person has fought and gone to court with. Those are the cases that give you skills beyond being a person who can get a good plea bargain and make the most money with the least number of clients.

  • Katarina_YYZ

    I think Morris represented Randy Ford on the kidnapping thing over 25 years ago.

    • Captain Canuck

      I believe that’s true. Morris is the Ford family’s longtime lawyer. And yes, he did represent Randy Ford when he was charged with kidnapping in the 1980s. This info was included in the Globe and Mail article about Doug Ford’s alleged drug trafficking in the 1980s, amongst other articles and publications.

      Morris managed to get those charges dropped. He indeed appears to be the Ford family’s “fixer” when it comes to legal matters.

    • Captain Canuck
  • raindogxx

    Correction: “La balogna panino” is not Latin, more like Italian. Not sure what it would be in Latin. However, Italy doesn’t have baloney, it has Mortadella–the progenitor of baloney. So, it should be “un panino di mortadella.”

    • vampchick21

      now I’m hungry……

    • Daniel Stein

      Mi scusi.

    • Notcleverguy

      I laughed at that line, well done Daniel

      But as one who studies Latin (yes I’m current like that) I think the term would be “et pro baloney”.

  • Niko Barrett

    Every time I hear Morris interviewed I think to myself “he doesn’t sound that bright”. Seriously, maybe he’s a brilliant legal mind (doubtful) but he just seems dopey.
    Oh and for it to be reported that Ford ‘moved the flame in a circular motion’ indicates he was pretty experienced at this sort of thing.

  • sirjames

    Morris , like Ford is an underachiever , ford is surrounded by these types

  • dianne underhill

    ohhhh damn……please don’t say “gangsters in Scarborough” as tho there are no gangsters to be found anywhere else in the GTA. It just ain’t so! Just sayin’

    • Punned_It

      More likely to be in Etobicoke; closer to home y’know.

  • Astin44

    He’s always struck me as less a full-time lawyer and more a fixer. The problem is that his client’s problems are now all over the media, and the police are very publicly involved, so there’s no way to sweep things under the rug, so rather amateurish-looking public defenses are put into play.

    I’m still regularly amazed with how the other players are rendered inconsequential – plea bargains that avoid court, silence when the subject of the Fords is brought up in questioning, shootings and murders, prison beatings, etc.. There’s clearly some influence being leveraged here to keep witnesses quiet and evidence from making it into the open.

    Which leads to things like police surveillance and attempts at gathering evidence that doesn’t rely on an unsavoury witness who could decide to clam up at the last minute. A rock-solid case has to be built with as many charges as possible, so that even if some are dismissed or found in favour of Ford, others have a chance of sticking.

  • Michael

    Dennis Morris proves that Shakespeare was right…

  • Joe Clark

    You need to search Carswell and similar paid databases. TRL has one available terminal (second floor behind the new information desk); you can ask for free access at the UofT law library.

  • Steve Fleck

    Why is everything that Rob Ford does, “The best”? Why are all the people around him, “The best”? Many things he says he’s done done are “The most. . .” Whenever he talks about the size of things it’s either, “The biggest” or “The smallest”. . . and so on

    The Mayor seems to live in a world of excellence and extremes!

    • Punned_It

      I fondly remember Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, who always said “that’s the second smallest/biggest/whatever …”

    • nastybrutishshort

      Well I might add that he will need “the best”….. And with a $100Million trust fund, he can afford “the best”, too. Lucky, that: If it takes a thief to catch one, it will take one to defend one, too.

  • Notcleverguy

    The main thing I get from this is Rob Ford is probably an art thief too. :)

    • dsmithhfx

      What would he steal? Drugs? NFL jerseys?

      • Notcleverguy

        It’s from the article, it says his Lawyer’s only real public accomplishment was returning a stolen piece of art to the AGO, from an unnamed client.

  • Sum12

    I think Morris is like a fifth-rate version of Tom Hagen just like Robbie is like a fifth-rate version of a Corleone (maybe even a fifth-rate Fredo) from the The Godfather…

  • christinaarcher

    The perfect name to give Rob Ford is this: Edsel Ford. He is just as good as the original.

  • torontothegreat

    MetroManTO posted this to Twitter the other day. This guy is more like a “Better call Saul” lawyer (a fixer) than a litigator!topic/soc.culture.ukrainian/Yrnw1DHgakc