Toronto – Two Ontario Liberals were charged Tuesday with bribery under the Election Act, potentially setting the stage for a second Liberal trial in the run-up to the 2018 election.
The charges against Pat Sorbara, the party’s CEO and 2018 campaign director, and Liberal operative Gerry Lougheed stem from allegations the pair offered a would-be candidate a job or appointment to get him to step aside in a 2015 by-election in Sudbury.
The Liberals ultimately won the seat, but the Ontario Provincial Police investigation overshadowed the race and has hung over the party ever since.
Sorbara, who until recently was Premier Kathleen Wynne’s deputy chief of staff, stepped down as party CEO and campaign director after the charges were laid.
“I continue to believe, with my whole heart, as I have from the beginning, that any charge against me will not succeed,” she wrote to party president Vince Borg. “I am shocked by any suggestion that I have done anything wrong.”
Sorbara’s lawyers, meanwhile, questioned the merits of the charges.
“These are regulatory offences and stem from legislation that, it appears, is being applied in an unprecedented and extraordinary way,” William Trudell and Erin Dann said in a statement.
“Ms. Sorbara takes the allegations seriously. She not only looks forward to, but is indeed eager, to defend these charges in court, to vigorously scrutinize what has happened here and to clear her name and reputation once and for all.”
A conviction under the bribery section of the Election Act carries a penalty of up to $5,000. If a judge finds it was broken “knowingly,” the penalty is a fine of up to $25,000 and/or up to two years less a day in jail.
Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Vince Hawkes called the investigation “complex and unprecedented” for the OPP anti-rackets branch. It’s one of several OPP investigations into the Liberal government.
David Livingston and Laura Miller, two of former premier Dalton McGuinty’s top staffers, are set to go on trial in September 2017. They were charged with breach of trust and mischief after a police investigation into the deletion of emails related to the Liberals’ decision to cancel two gas plants prior to the 2011 election, at a cost of up to $1.1 billion.
Police are also looking into financial irregularities at the Ornge air ambulance service, and recently started another investigation after Trillium Power Wind Corp. complained to police about the alleged destruction of documents in a lawsuit it filed against the province.
Sorbara and Lougheed are to appear in court in Sudbury on November 21, with a trial potentially looming around the time of the June 2018 election.
The OPP had been investigating the pair both criminally and under the Election Act. Sorbara was cleared criminally, but Lougheed was charged with one count of counselling an offence not committed and one count of unlawfully influencing or negotiating appointments – charges that were stayed earlier this year.
Following the staying of Lougheed’s criminal charges in April, the police turned their focus to the Election Act, specifically a bribery section that says no person shall directly or indirectly “give, procure or promise or agree to procure an office or employment to induce a person to become a candidate, refrain from becoming a candidate or withdraw his or her candidacy.”
Lougheed’s lawyer, Michael Lacy, said his client would respond to the allegations in court.
“Although these are not criminal charges, Gerry has maintained that he didn’t do anything that would attract a culpable finding,” Lacy wrote in a statement.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she is “concerned about the lack of leadership that this premier has shown in the way that she’s handled particularly Ms. Sorbara – not only leaving her in her role here in the legislature while all of these questions swirl, but then even promoting her to a higher office.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said, “I think it’s fair to say the appearance is that the premier is completely caught up on this.”
The latest investigation was sparked by recordings made by Andrew Olivier, who was the Liberal candidate in Sudbury during the 2014 general election. As a quadriplegic man who often records his conversations in lieu of taking notes, Olivier recorded chats he had with Sorbara and Lougheed. Technical difficulties prevented him from recording a call he had with Wynne herself.
The Liberals have denied wrongdoing, saying they made no specific offer but were trying to keep Olivier involved in the party after deciding to appoint Glenn Thibeault as their candidate as he left his role as the New Democrat MP for the riding.
By Allison Jones
The Canadian Press