Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne had a very bad day Tuesday.
That’s because news that charges of bribery under the Election Act have been laid against one of her top political advisors, Patricia Sorbara, and prominent Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed, is the first major Liberal scandal Wynne wears all by herself.
That’s terrible news for the premier, who faces two byelections later this month.
All the other major Liberal scandals — eHealth, Ornge, the cancelled gas plants and the deleted e-mails — two of which have led to police investigations and one, so far, to criminal charges against two former senior political aides — started under her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.
But the Sudbury byelection scandal occurred in February, 2015, two years after Wynne became premier.
Wynne hasn’t been charged.
But the impetus for the OPP investigation that led to charges arose out of Wynne’s desire to get former Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier to step aside in favour of Wynne’s preferred candidate — former New Democrat MP Glenn Thibeault — who later won the byelection.
Lougheed told Olivier in remarks recorded by Olivier because he is paraplegic and cannot take notes, that he had conversations with Wynne and Sorbara and: “I come to you on behalf of the premier … to ask you if you would consider stepping down, and more than that, Andrew, nominating (Thibeault). In the course of that deliberation, the premier wants to talk to you. They would like to present to you options in terms of appointments, jobs, whatever, that you and her and Pat Sorbara could talk about.”
Sorbara told Olivier: “We should have the broader discussion about what is it that you’d be most interested in doing … whether it’s a full-time or a part-time job in a constituency office, whether it is appointments, supports or commissions, whether it is also going on the exec …”
Both Sorbara and Lougheed have denied wrongdoing.
Wynne has said she’d already decided Olivier would not be the party’s nominee, that she and Sorbara were simply trying to keep him active in the party, and they didn’t offer him a job or appointment.
But Wynne created another controversy when she told the legislature after the OPP began its investigation, and the opposition parties were demanding Sorbara step aside because it was possible she could be charged, that: “On our review, we don’t think that’s going to happen, but that will be up to others to decide.”
Both opposition parties complained Wynne’s statement was improper (aside from proving to be inaccurate) because it might have pressured the OPP into reaching the same conclusion, since her government presides over the OPP and negotiates with its union on wages, benefits and pensions for OPP officers.
Wynne said Tuesday Sorbara, who was Wynne’s deputy chief of staff when the OPP probe began, will now step down from her current job as CEO and director of the 2018 Liberal re-election campaign, until the charges are resolved.
Lougheed was previously charged with two Criminal Code offences in connection with the byelection scandal, but they were stayed earlier this year.
However, in February 2015, Ontario Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essena made what he called an unprecedented finding that Lougheed and Sorbara had committed an “apparent contravention” of the Election Act and referred the case to the Attorney General of Ontario, who forwarded it to the OPP.
We’ll leave it to the courts to decide on the guilt or innocence of Sorbara, who faces two charges of bribery, and Lougheed, who faces one.
But Ontarians have a right to expect a higher standard of conduct than the political machinations that led to this scandal, including those of the premier.