By Allison Martell and Cameron French
TORONTO (Reuters) - Toronto Mayor Rob Ford flew to the United States in a private plane on Thursday, a TV network said, a day after he said he would take a leave of absence from his job and his re-election campaign to seek treatment for an alcohol problem.
Global News reported that it had confirmed Chicago as Ford's destination but did not cite any sources. It said it was unclear whether he was staying in Chicago or if he was receiving help.
Ford's decision to take a leave of absence followed months of denials that he has a substance abuse problem and nearly a year after media reports surfaced that he appeared in a video smoking crack cocaine.
His departure followed a Globe and Mail report on Wednesday that it had seen a video shot last week that showed Ford using what appeared to be drugs.
On Thursday morning, TV cameras showed Ford, 44, leaving his house and getting into a car driven by another person. Earlier, a large suitcase was seen being taken out of the house and being put into a separate car.
Ford did not talk to reporters, but late on Wednesday he released a statement admitting that he has a problem with alcohol and saying that he would seek help to deal with it immediately. The statement did not specify where he planned to go or how long he'd be away.
Ford's brother, Doug Ford, a city councilor and manager of the mayor's re-election campaign, choked back tears on Thursday as he told reporters he had encouraged the mayor to take time off.
"As an older brother, I'm relieved that Rob has faced his problems and has decided to seek professional help," he said. Doug Ford often speaks for the mayor and has been his most ardent defender, often berating reporters who ask about his brother's personal problems.
Those problems have become increasingly public in the wake of Ford's admission in November that he had smoked crack while in a "drunken stupor".
Since then, several videos have emerged showing the mayor ranting and slurring his words. Also, Toronto police said they had started investigating Ford after his name popped up in a drug probe.
In its report on the latest video, the Globe and Mail published a screen grab on its front page showing Ford holding a small pipe.
Separately on Wednesday, the Toronto Sun reported on a recording it had obtained of Ford ranting and swearing at a suburban Toronto bar on Monday. In it, he makes lewd remarks about rival mayoral candidate Karen Stintz, and also makes threats and utters racial slurs.
In the statement announcing his leave of absence, Ford did not address allegations of drug use or either of the recordings.
Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly told a news conference on Thursday that he was assuming Ford's duties until the mayor returns.
"The events that have brought us together this morning can be best described as a personal tragedy and should not be seen as a crisis of government," Kelly said.
"The actions of the mayor are inexcusable. It's fundamental that we as members of council respect each other and the people we represent."
Kelly had already been carrying out many of the duties normally conducted by the mayor following the city council's decision in November to strip Ford of much of his power.
City Manager Joe Penachetti confirmed that Ford's council seat would become vacant if he misses three monthly council meetings - in other words, if he is not back by the July meeting - unless the council gives him permission to stay away.
Ford's absence comes in the midst of his campaign to be returned to office in October's municipal election. He has bet that his core of support in the city's suburbs will give him enough votes to top main rivals Olivia Chow and John Tory.
First elected mayor in 2010, Ford has maintained a cost-cutting "respect the taxpayer" mantra that has resonated with many suburban voters.
He often paints himself as a champion of the suburbs against downtown "elites", and in a departure from an otherwise right-leaning agenda, has vowed to build subways instead of lower-cost light-rail transit.
Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research, said that while Ford's popularity has suffered from a year's worth of bad publicity, his loyal core supporters mean he should not be counted out of the race, even as the latest news is sure to alienate some voters.
"The timing's better now than after Labor day, which would be serious campaign time. And we've got the whole summer, when people forget things. I think the key thing is, is he going to sound contrite," Bozinoff said.
Recent polls have shown Ford in second place in popular support behind Chow despite last year's revelations about crack, which made headlines globally and drew ridicule from U.S. late-night talk show hosts.
John Wright of pollster Ipsos, however, said it will be tough for Ford to build on numbers that were already not good enough to win.
"If anything, it opens a 30-day window for John Tory to possibly tilt towards the 'protecting taxpayers money' mantra that the mayor has held," said Wright.
"A month in rehab may also change Rob Ford too. Let's not assume that he will come out of 30 days and want to or be able to get back on the horse."
(Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson, Peter Galloway and Ken Wills)