Former NDP MP Glenn Thibeault asked for paid jobs for constituency office staffers in exchange for running in a provincial byelection that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was “determined” to win, a Liberal bribery trial heard Thursday.
Pat Sorbara, who was at the time the Ontario Liberal Party CEO, and Gerry Lougheed, a local Liberal fundraiser are accused under the Election Act of offering would-be candidate Andrew Olivier a job or appointment to get him to step aside for Thibeault, who was Wynne’s preferred candidate in a 2015 byelection in Sudbury, Ont.
Sorbara is also facing a second charge, in relation to an alleged offer made to Thibeault to get him to become the candidate.
In addition to the paid positions for two of his staffers, Thibeault wanted income replacement for himself and full support of the Ontario Liberals, federal prosecutor David McKercher said in his opening statement.
Thibeault has previously denied he sought anything that would be seen as a bribe in exchange for running and is not charged with any offences.
Both Sorbara and Lougheed pleaded not guilty Thursday.
Their lawyers say the Crown’s allegations wrongly use the term “candidate” interchangeably with “party nominee” and only candidacy processes are governed by the Election Act.
“The process that took place and whatever may have occurred during those conversations … is not in relation to a candidate in the byelection but rather exclusively in relation to the Liberal nominee in that byelection,” said Sorbara’s lawyer, Brian Greenspan.
“(Thibeault) was going to be appointed, as was her (Wynne’s) right under the Liberal constitution,” said Lougheed’s lawyer, Michael Lacy. “There was never going to be a contested nomination process in this riding for that byelection. Mr. Olivier’s wishful thinking in that regard does not transform him into a candidate for the purpose of the Ontario Election Act.”
The Liberals had held the Sudbury riding for nearly two decades before losing it in the 2014 general election to the NDP, but the New Democrat MPP stepped down months later for health reasons.
“The premier was determined to win the Sudbury seat back in the byelection,” McKercher said.
She didn’t think Olivier, the party’s candidate in the riding in the recent general election, was the best chance for winning, instead preferring Thibeault, he said.
“She was willing to appoint him if necessary, but that was not her preferred course. Mr. Thibeault himself did not want an appointment,” and didn’t think he’d win open nomination against Olivier, McKercher said.
The Crown alleges that is the context in which Sorbara and Lougheed spoke to Olivier and offered him a job or appointment.
Because Olivier is quadriplegic he records important conversations as a form of note taking and previously posted that audio to YouTube.
Court heard Thursday that another conversation between Olivier and Sorbara was very recently discovered on Olivier’s phone, predating the other two chats and predating Wynne and Thibeault’s first meeting.
“You are the past candidate but you’re not the current candidate yet,” Sorbara cautions near the end of the call.
Wynne ultimately appointed Thibeault as the candidate, he won the byelection and has since been promoted to energy minister.
The premier herself is set to testify on Wednesday.
She has said that she had already decided Olivier would not be the byelection candidate by the time Sorbara and Lougheed spoke to him, therefore anything offered was not in exchange for stepping aside. Rather, Wynne says, she was trying to keep him in the party fold.
An Election Act bribery conviction 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.