Judge acquits Liberal operatives in Sudbury bribery trial, abruptly ending it

Judge acquits Liberal operatives in Sudbury bribery trial, abruptly ending it

The judge in the Sudbury byelection trial has dismissed all charges against two Liberal operatives, clearing them in the high-profile bribery case and giving the party political reprieve after years of fallout over the corruption allegations.

The Ontario Court of Justice ruling acquits a confidant of Premier Kathleen Wynne — who testified last month — and a prominent Liberal fundraiser of bribery charges.

The Crown had alleged Patricia Sorbara and Gerry Lougheed tried to dissuade a former Liberal candidate from running again in the 2015 byelection, using the promise of jobs or posts as a lure in contravention of Ontario’s Election Act.

A separate charge, against Sorbara alone, alleged she coaxed Glenn Thibeault — then an NDP MPP, now Wynne’s energy minister — with the promise of jobs for two of his federal constituency office staffers.

Justice Howard Borenstein delivered his ruling on the defence’s motion for a "directed verdict" on Tuesday in Sudbury. The judge sided with the defence argument that the trial should be cut short because the Crown had failed to make a sufficient case, ruling that "there is no evidence upon which a reasonable jury" could find the defendants guilty.

The ruling was followed by hugs among defence lawyers, Lougheed and Sorbara, who wiped tears from her eyes on hearing the acquittal.

“I’m just grateful that this day has come,” Sorbara told reporters afterward. “I have no regrets.”

Sorbara, Wynne's former deputy chief of staff, will rejoin the Liberal campaign team in the run-up to the provincial election on June 7, 2018, the party announced in a release immediately after the decision.

“It’s been very worrisome, very tiresome, very stressful,” said Lougheed, a Sudbury funeral home owner and local philanthropist. “This province has spent an awful lot of money on this case, the investigations. My question is: Why?”

Lougheed said he plans to continue to be involved in the community, but would "just have to wait and see" whether he’ll resume work as a Liberal organizer.

The Grits' byelection nomination exploded into political controversy in December 2014 when former Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier announced he was not intending to seek the nomination — as he had previously declared he would — and suggested he had been offered a job if he would step aside, which triggered investigations by the Ontario Provincial Police and Elections Ontario.

Olivier had recorded conversations with Lougheed and Sorbara during which the defendants talked about the possibility of jobs or roles for him should he make way for Thibeault and avoid seeking the Liberal nomination.

Olivier opted to go public with his complaints instead and ran in the byelection as an independent. Thibeault ran for the Liberals, and won.

In November 2016, the OPP announced it had charged Lougheed and Sorbara with bribery under the Election Act. The provincial law makes it an offence to "induce a person to become a candidate, refrain from becoming a candidate or withdraw his or her candidacy" in an election.

In his ruling, Borenstein said he disagreed with the Crown's argument that Olivier was in fact a Liberal candidate under provincial legislation. The judge cited evidence from court witnesses that showed Thibeault had agreed to become the candidate before Sorbara and Lougheed came to Olivier with alternate opportunities in the party. It wasn't possible for Olivier to be "induced" into backing down from a candidacy that was previously pledged to Thibeault, Borenstein said. Instead, the inducements the duo offered were aimed at fostering party unity, he found.

“One who seeks to become a party’s nominee is not running in an election for the legislative assembly; he or she is running in an internal contest," meaning the Election Act doesn't apply, the judge said.

“The Election Act deals with elections to the assembly, not with elections held by private organizations or parties,” Borenstein said, adding that otherwise the implications for private groups, including parties, would be "absurd."

On the second charge against Sorbara, the judge found that the allegation — that she procured two temporary positions on Thibeault's byelection campaign for two of his staffers — did not constitute a bribe.

“Nothing that occurred in relation to this count could be characterized as bribery," Borenstein said. "There was nothing secret or clandestine. There was nothing being asked for or offered that was unrelated to simply staffing the campaign office," Borenstein said.

The judge directed a verdict of acquittal on all charges, which were not criminal.

Until Tuesday, the defendants were staring down fines of up to $25,000 and maximum jail time of two years less a day.

Sorbara's lawyer Brian Greenspan, a prominent criminal attorney, called the ruling “clear and unequivocal vindication."

“These are rare events ... and they occur when the law states very, very clearly that there is simply no evidence upon which any reasonable jury could possibly convict.”

Lougheed’s lawyer Michael Lacy had harsh words for provincial police as well as Crown lawyers — who work for Canada's federal prosecution service — calling their investigation and prosecution "misguided."

“They never should have been subjected to these allegations,” he said of the accused after the ruling.

Lacy suggested outside factors may have played a role. “There’s a lot of political pressure. Sometimes that happens — politics gets in the way of making decisions about charging," he said.

Lacy added that Olivier was not to blame. He also said it was "premature" to discuss any legal costs he might demand from the Crown.

At Queen's Park, Thibeault told reporters the acquittal was a “complete vindication.”

“For me, it’s a good weight off my shoulders; you do carry it,” he said, adding that he had experienced “survivor’s guilt” because, unlike Lougheed and Sorbara, he hadn’t been charged.

The energy minister has been under political fire since Crown prosecutor Vern Brewer told reporters nearly a year ago that Thibeault had “sought certain benefits” as part of a deal to become a Liberal. Brewer eventually released a statement clarifying he "never suggested, nor intended to suggest,” that Thibeault had “acted corruptly,” but the comments had already ignited the opposition parties, who called for his resignation.

It wasn’t until the trial began in September that the public learned that the benefit he allegedly sought was temporary employment on his campaign for two of his staffers, as they would lose their jobs in his constituency office when he left his post as NDP MP. It wasn’t, as many had speculated, money or a cabinet position.

PC Leader Patrick Brown, who is running an attack ad against the Liberals that mentions the trial, said the case “speaks to a broader pattern of Liberal political corruption,” citing the eHealth and Ornge scandals and the gas-plant email-deletion trial. “I think what I’m most worried about is what this government has been able to hide and what scandal lies next for the taxpayer."

Last month, Wynne’s testimony in the trial triggered another set of legal dominoes. Fewer than 24 hours before she was set to swear in as a witness, Brown told reporters she “stands trial,” prompting allegations of libel and a possible defamation suit from Wynne.

NDP MPP Gilles Bisson issued a statement on behalf of his party, saying: "Ontarians are not comforted by Liberal officials beating bribery charges."

"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," Bisson said.

- With files from Jessica Smith Cross

Photo credit: Christopher Reynolds

Christopher Reynolds


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