Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne denied in court Wednesday that she promised a New Democrat MP a cabinet position to get him to leave his party and run for the provincial Liberals.
The premier is a witness in the trial of two Liberals who are charged with bribery under the Election Act over allegations they offered a would-be candidate a job or appointment to get him to step aside for NDP MP Glenn Thibeault, who was Wynne’s preferred candidate in a 2015 byelection.
Wynne herself is not facing charges and her lawyers sent Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown a letter Wednesday demanding he retract comments they say suggest the premier is standing trial.
Court heard that a man who let the premier’s staff know that Thibeault might be interested in switching parties relayed to them concerns he said Thibeault had “before jumping.”
“Premier said he could only get in cabinet after a process and at next shuffle at a date TBD,” the man texted Pat Sorbara, the premier’s deputy chief of staff at the time and one of the two Liberals on trial.
Sorbara and other top staff in the premier’s office wrote in a subsequent email chain that “demands for a cabinet position” were worrying.
Wynne testified that the text doesn’t reflect her conversations with Thibeault.
She prefers giving caucus members time to learn the system rather than immediately putting them in cabinet, she testified.
“I made it clear to Glenn that that was my belief and that was my practice,” Wynne said, adding she first broached the cabinet issue and not Thibeault.
“I actually put that forward because I wanted it to be very clear and I didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding about where I was coming from.”
Thibeault, who was promoted to energy minister in June 2016, has previously denied he sought anything that would be seen as a bribe in exchange for running and is not charged with any offences.
Sorbara, who was also Liberal campaign director, and Gerry Lougheed, a local Liberal organizer, have both pleaded not guilty.
They’re accused of offering would-be candidate Andrew Olivier a job or appointment to get him to step aside for Thibeault.
Wynne testified that when she, Lougheed and Sorbara each spoke to Olivier, she had decided Thibeault would be the candidate. She had hoped Olivier would step aside so Thibeault could win an uncontested nomination, in order to present a unified party, she said.
The final decision and announcement of Thibeault’s appointment came a few days after those conversations, court heard, but Wynne said her mind was already made up.
“It was very clear to (Olivier) I was prepared to go ahead and appoint, and that was the track that we were on,” she said.
Olivier testified last week he still thought at that point he could change the premier’s mind and run in an open nomination contest. Olivier had been the Liberal candidate in Sudbury in the 2014 general election, but lost to the NDP
Wynne testified that she thought the Liberals should have held onto the riding, since they had held it for nearly two decades at that point. That led her to believe that Olivier was not as strong a candidate as she had thought and wouldn’t be the best candidate for a byelection, Wynne said.
The seat became available when the New Democrat member resigned five months after the general election. When the premier heard that Thibeault was interested in running for the provincial Liberals she thought it was “an intriguing idea,” she said.
Once Thibeault committed to running for the Liberals, Wynne said she left the next steps up to Sorbara.
Sorbara is also facing a second charge, in relation to an allegation she arranged for paid jobs on the byelection campaign for two of Thibeault’s constituency staff, at his request.
Wynne said she was aware Thibeault was concerned about what would happen with his staff.
After testifying, Wynne spoke to reporters.
“I wanted to be here to be as open as possible. I’ve said everything I came to say,” Wynne said. She did not take questions.
The crowd chanted “Liar, liar, pants on fire” as she left.
Although Wynne didn’t have to testify — she could have invoked parliamentary privilege — she announced earlier this year that she would be taking the stand.
CityNews reporter Cynthia Mulligan is at the trial. Read her live report below:
At the same time a second trial began on Monday in Toronto with two more prominent Liberals facing charges.
David Livingston, who was chief of staff to then-premier Dalton McGuinty, and Laura Miller, a former deputy chief of staff, are accused of orchestrating the deletion of emails surrounding the highly controversial cancelled gas plants.
All four are pleading not guilty but even if they are found innocent, the timing is terrible for Kathleen Wynne, whose popularity in the polls has been abysmal.
With files from News Staff