Nenshi’s Uber attack on video puts city hall ethics in spotlight
As Mayor Naheed Nenshi faces a grilling from his council colleagues on Monday after he suggested city hall assigned criminals to test Uber’s background checks, political observers say the episode raises ethical questions and emboldens the mayor’s critics.
Even as Nenshi apologized for remarks he made during a recorded drive in Boston, he did not say with certainty whether city hall dispatched violent offenders to test Uber’s screening process, said political scientist Duane Bratt.
“If that did not happen, if he was exaggerating, he needs to say so,” Bratt said, adding he doubts city hall commissioned a “sting operation” against Uber.
“If he comes out clearly when he comes back to Calgary and says, ‘We don’t do this and I’m sorry for even suggesting that we do,’ then I don’t think it warrants an investigation,” Bratt said.
Nenshi appeared unaware a camera was rolling when his 27-minute drive through Boston was broadcast live from a Lyft ride-share vehicle. During the drive, he said Uber workers are the “worst people in the world to deal with,” and he called Uber CEO Travis Kalanick a “dick.”
What was most concerning for many was what the Calgary mayor said about city hall’s efforts to test Uber’s background screens.
“We’re no fools, so we sent people to sign up to be Uber drivers to see if they could get through the background check,” he said during the drive, live-streamed with an app called Periscope.
“How we found registered sex offenders, I don’t want to know, and people with convictions for violent crimes; I don’t want to know why we know those people,” he said, adding “they all made it through Uber’s theoretical background screening.”
Nenshi later issued a statement apologizing to Kalanick and his employees, conceding his language “wasn’t very nice or civil.” He said his conversation with the Lyft driver was recorded without his consent, though he took “full responsibility” for his comments.
In his statement, the mayor said city hall has proof that at least one Uber driver facing an assault charge cleared the company’s background check, but he said he’s “not aware” sex offenders have passed the screen in Calgary.
“Watching the video, I realize that I did not explain myself clearly at all. I apologize for any confusion that I have caused.”
Several councillors demanded answers on the file, with Coun. Richard Pootmans suggesting city hall’s ethics adviser may have to investigate.
“Maybe this is the first high-profile case for our new ethics adviser,” said Coun. Richard Pootmans. “I’d like to know exactly what we were doing and I’d be happy to have it looked at by someone such as the ethics adviser.”
Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart said she found the incident “bizarre and very disturbing.”
“When (Nenshi) says, ‘I don’t know and I don’t want to know,’ I would say exactly the opposite,” Colley-Urquhart said. “I do want to know. I want to know everything. And I want to know about the ethics of this.”
In the video, Nenshi appeared to be “very anxious” to distance himself from “ethically questionable” behaviour he was describing, said Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.
But Nenshi appears to have been exaggerating his complaints about Uber, “which probably raises questions about his judgment,” Williams said. Still, unless there is new evidence suggesting city hall commissioned criminals to search for holes in Uber’s screening process, she said an ethics probe may not yield any major revelations.
“It appears that he was making a hyperbolic statement with a cab driver in a way that he thought was off the record,” Williams said.
“When pressed to go on the record, he didn’t have much new information, so in the absence of something more than that and new evidence, it’s pretty difficult to see what kind of substance an ethics probe would produce.”
While Nenshi’s comments were “unsavoury,” the resulting controversy may not dog him for long and likely will not “fatally damage” his credibility, Williams said.
“I don’t know that there’s much detailed information that would profoundly affect public opinion,” she said.
Bratt said the controversy plays directly into the hands of Nenshi’s critics, but he suggested the mayor could put the episode to rest very quickly “if he comes clean.”
“That was always (Ralph) Klein’s thing: He could say outrageous things, and walk it back and apologize,” Bratt said. “Nenshi’s not very good at apologies. He could end this in one day or it could continue to percolate.”