UPDATE 2-Toronto mayor loses two more top aides after crack scandal
(Adds comments from municipal affairs specialist, biographer)
By Julie Gordon and Allison Martell
TORONTO May 27 (Reuters) - Two top aides quit Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's office on Monday as the embattled leader of Canada's biggest city faces lingering allegations he was caught smoking crack cocaine on video, accusations he has firmly denied.
The departures of the mayor's press secretary and deputy press secretary came just days after Ford fired his chief of staff. The mayor confirmed on Monday that both George Christopoulos and Isaac Ransom left of their own accord.
"I wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors and I want to thank them for working hard in this office," he told a crush of journalists outside his office. "That's it, it's business as usual."
Christopoulos and Ransom could not be reached for comment. But their departures renewed questions about whether the mayor would be able to weather his most serious controversy to date.
Ford has been under fire since reporters from the Toronto Star and Gawker Media said in separate reports on May 16 that they had seen a video that purports to show Ford smoking crack. The mayor directly denied the allegations on Friday, after initially dismissing the media stories as "ridiculous," without giving a full statement.
Reuters cannot confirm the existence of the video or its content.
The video, according to The Star and Gawker, was being shopped around by people involved in the drug trade. Both media outlets declined to pay the six-figure sum requested by the video's owners.
The controversy has made headlines across Canada and outside the country and drawn ridicule from late-night TV humorists Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart.
Speaking on his weekly radio show on Sunday, Ford brushed off the scandal, calling the media a "bunch of maggots," and promised to run in the next election.
"I'll be the first putting my name on that ballot," he said.
Ford apologized for his maggot comment on Monday.
The drug-use allegations are the latest in a string of scandals for the mayor, who has been chided for ignoring city work to coach high school football and was briefly ordered out of office last year after he was found guilty of conflict of interest.
While some of Ford's opponents have called for him to step down, one municipal affairs specialist said there was little that could be done under the current system to force a Toronto mayor from office.
"There is no recall or impeachment provision," said John Mascarin, a lawyer with Aird & Berlis LLP. "Stupidity is not one of the things" that can get you removed.
Elected officials can be removed from City Hall by court order in a conflict-of-interest situation, or if they do not attend council meetings for several months without being formally excused.
Also on Ford's side is the steadfast backing of his core supporters, said Ivor Tossell, a journalist and author of the biography 'The Gift of Ford'.
"One of Ford's great political assets is he plays on a sense of marginalization and grievance among his supporters. He likes to play the little guy," he said. "In a way, the more the institutions like the media attack him, the stronger he gets."
The latest controversy does not appear to have hurt Ford's popularity, according to a Forum Research Inc poll released over the weekend, although he is at risk of being ousted in a 2014 election.
The poll, taken on Friday after Ford denied the drug-use claims, found the mayor would still lose a one-on-one battle if pitted against Olivia Chow, a former city councillor and current federal member of Parliament widely touted as a candidate.
It showed Ford would get 36 percent of the vote, in line with a May 10 poll taken before the latest scandal broke, while Chow would get more than half the vote.
The mayor's popularity has been attributed to the support of the "Ford Nation," suburban voters who pushed Ford into the city's top office in 2010 and back his agenda of cutting taxes and reducing city spending.
"Rob Ford is really both the Teflon and Kevlar Mayor - nothing sticks to him and nothing penetrates his armor," Forum Research founder Lorne Bozinoff said in a statement.
"His recent troubles have had absolutely no effect on his electoral prospects." (Additional reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Peter Cooney)