Liberal cabinet ministers Tuesday escaped one of two contempt motions over the release of documents on cancelled gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga when the Speaker ruled they did not intentionally mislead the legislature.
It's clear then-energy minister Chris Bentley and other Liberals were wrong last September to insist all gas plant documents had been released when another 20,000 pages turned up in October, said Speaker Dave Levac.
"While this sequence of events certainly demonstrates that some statements were incorrect when they were made, I accept that they were believed to be true at the time, not made with the intention of misleading the house," Levac said in his ruling.
"There is no evidence before me that would support a contrary opinion. I find that a prima facie case of contempt on the basis that a member has deliberately misled the house has not been established."
Liberal house leader John Milloy was pleased the Speaker had found no intention to mislead the legislature over the release of the gas plant documents.
"It was just the circumstances of the different events caught up with us, and certainly myself and Chris Bentley corrected the record at the first opportunity back in October," said Milloy.
Tories say ruling a 'technicality'
The Progressive Conservatives said the Liberals got off on a "technicality" because it's very difficult to prove a member has misled the legislature on purpose.
"They did mislead the house, but the threshold for proving that they intentionally misled the house is very, very high and has only been met a couple times in parliamentary history," said PC house leader Jim Wilson.
"So I guess we weren't surprised, but were somewhat disappointed."
The Tories had actually filed two contempt motions against the Liberals last fall — one for claiming all the gas plant documents had been released and the other for refusing to comply with a committee request to release the documents in the first place.
Both motions died when Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature Oct. 15 and announced his retirement, but were refiled by the Opposition when the house resumed sitting last month under new Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Meanwhile, the legislature's justice committee will investigate the original contempt motion regarding the release of the gas plant documents, where the Speaker had ruled last fall that there was a "prima facie breach of privilege."
After several days of infighting over an offer from Wynne to let the committee broaden its probe to include all aspects of the gas plant cancellations, not just the release of documents, the opposition agreed to the proposal.
"I hope that they do more than a witch hunt, and I hope they actually look at the issues and clear the air on some of the questions that have been raised," said Milloy.
Tories had wanted second committee
The Tories had been worried the Liberals were trying to "water down" the contempt motion by broadening the committee's mandate, even though they wanted a second committee to investigate the exact same things, but eventually agreed to the change.
"We took the last few days to dot our i's and cross our t's because we don't trust these fellows whatsoever in terms of producing documents, producing people or producing the things that the committee may want," said Wilson.
"We're satisfied now that the motion should allow us to do pretty much everything and anything we want, including pursuing the contempt motion."
The partisan fighting over the committee's mandate and the bitter debates on contempt last fall are proof the entire issue of the gas plant cancellations should go before a public inquiry, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"I fear we're seeing a play out of exactly what happened last time, which is this becomes a political football and there's politicization of the process that slows things down and creates delays," said Horwath.
"For us, the important thing is to get the answers for the people."
The Tories and New Democrats believe the cost of the gas plant cancellations will be much higher than the $230 million the Liberals claim, and are convinced there are still more documents that have not been made public.
Wynne has admitted cancelling the gas plants was a political decision by the Liberal campaign team.