Toronto mayor loses two more top aides after crack scandal

TORONTO (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 Mr Ford fired his chief of staff. The mayor confirmed on Monday that both Mr George Christopoulos and Mr Isaac Ransom left of their own accord.

"I wish them the best of luck in their future endeavours 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." Mr Christopoulos and Mr Ransom could not be reached for comment.

Mr 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 Mr 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 humourists Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart.

Speaking on his weekly radio show on Sunday, Mr 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 apologised 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.

The latest controversy does not appear to have hurt Mr 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 Mr Ford denied the drug-use claims, found the mayor would still lose a one-on-one battle for his job if pitted against Ms Olivia Chow, a former city councillor and current federal member of Parliament widely touted as a candidate.

It showed Mr Ford would get 36 per cent of the vote, in line with a May 10 poll taken before the latest scandal broke, while Ms 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 Mr Ford into the city's top office in 2010 and back his agenda of cutting taxes and reducing city spending.

"Mr Rob Ford is really both the Teflon and Kevlar Mayor - nothing sticks to him and nothing penetrates his armour," Forum Research founder Lorne Bozinoff said in a statement. "His recent troubles have had absolutely no effect on his electoral prospects."