TORONTO — Two Ontario Liberals, including the premier’s deputy chief of staff, appear to have contravened a bribery section of the Election Act, the province’s electoral officer said Thursday in an “unprecedented” finding.
An Elections Ontario investigation found there is evidence that Premier Kathleen Wynne’s deputy chief of staff, Pat Sorbara, and a local Liberal organizer offered a would-be candidate a job or appointment to get him to step aside in a recent byelection in Sudbury.
For weeks the premier has refused opposition calls to remove Sorbara from her role while under investigation and the government has said it is unable to step in to remove Gerry Lougheed as chair of the city’s police services board.
The demands grew louder Thursday after Elections Ontario’s conclusions were tabled in the legislature just minutes before question period, apparently catching the premier off guard.
“We all just got this information,” Wynne said more than half a dozen times. “We are taking it under advisement…What I will not do is take rash advice from the other side of the floor until I’ve had an opportunity to consider all of the information.”
The Liberals were quick to point out that Elections Ontario did not implicate Wynne herself nor Glenn Thibeault, the former NDP MP who won the Feb. 5 byelection for the Liberals.
Greg Essensa, the chief electoral officer of Ontario, concluded that Sorbara and Lougheed’s actions “constitute an apparent contravention” of a section of the Election Act concerning “bribery in connection with inducing a person to become, refrain from becoming, or withdrawing from being a candidate.”
Essensa called the circumstances “unprecedented.”
“No chief electoral officer of Ontario has ever conducted a regulatory investigation into allegations of bribery or ever reported an apparent contravention of the Election Act or the Election Finances Act to the Ministry of the Attorney General,” he said in his statement.
To find an “apparent contravention” as per the Election Act, Essensa said he must be satisfied that there is a “prima facie” contravention based on the evidence, and he is neither deciding to prosecute a matter nor determining anyone’s guilt or innocence.
Since Elections Ontario has no mandate to conduct prosecutions Essensa has referred the case to the Ministry of the Attorney General. The ministry has in turn delegated the federal Public Prosecution Service to decide whether to lay charges.
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.
The Ontario Provincial Police are also investigating whether the alleged actions violated the Criminal Code.
The Liberals have denied wrongdoing, saying they made no specific offer but were trying to keep Andrew Olivier — who had been their candidate in the June general election — involved in the party after deciding to appoint Thibeault.
Wynne has often repeated that no “specific” offer was made to Olivier.
Essensa said in a report he filed with the legislature “it is unnecessary to show that a particular job was offered.”
Progressive Conservative house leader Steve Clark said the audio recordings of Olivier’s conversations with Lougheed and Sorbara — Olivier is quadriplegic and records conversations in lieu of taking notes — are clear.
“We could hear it. Ontarians could hear it,” he said in the legislature. “Premier, if you stand with these two you’re going to fall with these two. Stand up and call for their resignations.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wynne has “lost her way.”
“I don’t understand why the premier refuses to acknowledge what is clear in black and white and what is frankly unprecedented here in Ontario,” she said.
Lougheed has told local media in Sudbury that he does not have the authority to offer jobs and “at no time” did he promise Olivier a job or appointment if he stepped aside. The Greater Sudbury Police Services Board declined further comment Thursday.
Essensa said to find an apparent contravention of the act, the person making the “potential offer” does not need to be capable of actually delivering it.