Two Ontario Liberals were acquitted of Election Act bribery charges Tuesday in a case the party and one of the defendants suggested was only brought to trial because of political motivations.
The judge hearing the case granted a directed verdict application from the defence that called for the charges to be tossed before any defence witnesses were called. Based on the Crown’s evidence alone, no reasonable jury could convict the pair on trial, the judge concluded.
The ruling means the case has been dismissed against Pat Sorbara, who was Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s deputy chief of staff and Liberal campaign director, and local Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed.
The pair were accused of offering would-be candidate Andrew Olivier a job or appointment to step aside for Wynne’s preferred candidate in a 2015 byelection in Sudbury, Ont.
The judge found Olivier never could have been the candidate because Wynne had already decided to appoint Glenn Thibeault — then the NDP MP and now the energy minister.
“There never was going to be a contested nomination in which Olivier could become the candidate. The applicants could not induce someone to refrain from becoming something he could never become.”
The case was a politically charged one from the start.
After the controversy first arose a couple of months before the Sudbury byelection, both opposition parties called on the provincial police and Elections Ontario to investigate. Since then the case has spawned endless attacks against the Liberals.
It even led the premier to move to sue Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown for defamation for saying she was personally on trial.
Acquittals will not end those attacks, the opposition parties signalled in statements moments after the court ruling.
“This whole episode is but one part of a consistent pattern of political corruption,” Brown wrote. “We’re worried about what they’ve been able to keep hidden and are fearful of what scandal will come next.”
New Democrat Gilles Bisson said Ontarians are not comforted by the Liberals “beating” the charges.
“People have been disturbed by the spectacle of two senior Liberals standing trial as a result of bribery allegations in the Sudbury byelection,” he wrote in a statement. “The glimpse of the inner workings of the Liberal party that Ontarians gained during this trial showed the Liberals to be a party obsessed with defending, protecting and promoting itself, not the people of Ontario.”
A statement from the Ontario Liberals said Sorbara is being welcomed back to the election campaign team as the province heads to the polls next summer. She remains on a leave of absence from her deputy chief of staff position in the premier’s office.
“We regret that vindictive Opposition demands for prosecution put these two innocent people through an ordeal of almost three years in order to defend themselves and their reputations,” the party said.
Lougheed said there was no doubt in his mind that the political element was a “great motivator” in why the case went to trial at all.
“I do have some concerns about the investigation and the proceedings because I might suggest the taxpayers of this province have spent an awful lot of money on this case, the investigations and my question would be: why and who in fact was the motivator for this? Because the judge has said there was no evidence,” he said outside court.
His lawyer, Michael Lacy, said the case should never have been taken to trial in the first place.
“There was a lot of political pressure, wasn’t there?” he said outside court. “Sometimes that happens, unfortunately, when politics get in the way of making decisions about charging, making decisions about prosecuting…We know that there was this political context to what went on here.”
Sorbara also faced a second charge, alleging that she bribed Thibeault to become the candidate by arranging for paid jobs on the byelection campaign for two of his constituency staff.
But the judge said he can’t see why agreeing to employ two qualified people would be detrimental to the electoral process. Bribery involves some element of dishonesty, Judge Howard Borenstein said, and nothing in the facts of that charge could be characterized as bribery.
Acquittals on a directed verdict are very rare, Sorbara’s lawyer Brian Greenspan said.
“It’s as close as you can get, factually, to a finding of innocence,” he said.
Sorbara herself said little outside court, except that she is grateful and she always knew the law would make the right decision.
With files from CJMX