2 ethics trials of Liberal insiders pose test for Kathleen Wynne

Two separate corruption trials of senior Ontario Liberals begin in the next few days, threatening to kneecap Premier Kathleen Wynne's hopes of getting her government on track in time for the election next June.

Liberal campaign director, fundraiser face bribery charges; two McGuinty aides charged with breach of trust

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is due to testify next Wednesday as a Crown witness in the trial of her former deputy chief of staff and a Liberal fundraiser, charged with bribery under the province's Election Act. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Two separate corruption trials of senior Ontario Liberals begin in the next few days, threatening to kneecap Premier Kathleen Wynne's hopes of getting her government on track in time for the election next June. 

Wynne herself will be the focus next Wednesday when she is due to testify in the bribery trial of her former campaign director, Pat Sorbara, and Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed Jr.

They are accused of violating Ontario's Elections Act by allegedly offering a job to a would-be Liberal candidate in exchange for stepping aside in the 2014 byelection in Sudbury. Their trial begins Thursday. 

Next Monday, two top aides to Wynne's predecessor Dalton McGuinty face a criminal trial on charges of breach of trust and mischief. David Livingston, McGuinty's chief of staff in 2012-13, and his deputy chief of staff Laura Miller are accused of destroying government documents about the cancellation of two gas-fired power plants.

All four Liberals have denied the charges. but the spectre of two court cases at once couldn't get much worse for Wynne and her party, according to political scientist Laure Paquette. 

"She's not doing well in the polls and this is not going to help," said Paquette, a professor at Lakehead University specializing in political strategy. "Everybody is going to be reminded the Liberal government is a tired government that is showing signs that it needs to be replaced."

Paquette said Wynne has only one option for a strategy of how to handle the cases in the public eye. "The best thing to do now is say you are looking for justice to be done ... and hope for the best." 

Pat Sorbara was deputy chief of staff to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and campaign director for the Ontario Liberal Party. She resigned after being charged last November with bribery under the Ontario Election Act. (Mike Crawley/CBC News)

At a news conference in Toronto on Wednesday, I asked Wynne how concerned she is that the trials could overshadow what she wants to accomplish in government this fall. 

"I really don't have control over that. My job is to implement our plan, to make sure that we do everything we can to make this a fair place to live," Wynne responded.  

"In terms of my participation in what's going on in Sudbury ... I've been honest with the people of Ontario, with the Legislature about that situation, I will continue to be, but I cannot let that become my work."

'Liberal political corruption' on trial

Yet she may have no choice, with the opposition parties pouncing on the spectre of Wynne testifying while her party's alleged ethical lapses are unveiled in court. 

David Livingston was chief of staff to former premier Dalton McGuinty. He is charged with breach of trust and mischief for allegedly deleting government documents about the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants. (Handout)

"Make no mistake; it is Liberal political corruption that will be on trial," said Steve Clark, the Progressive Conservative accountability critic. "It's a sad day for the people of Ontario that they will be seeing their premier as a witness on the stand."

"There's no way the Liberals can rehabilitate themselves with the trials under way at the same time," said pollster Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research.

His firm's polling has shown Wynne's party in third place for months.

"At some point, the Liberals have to start winning back supporters,"  Bozinoff said in an interview with CBC News. "This is not going to help with that task; it`s just going to further delay it." 

Both sets of allegations have already been a drag on Wynne and the Liberals for nearly three years.

Taped conversations led to charges

The bribery claims first surfaced in December 2014. Andrew Olivier, who was seeking the Liberal nomination in Sudbury, alleged that senior Liberals offered him a job to step aside. The province's Elections Act prohibits promising someone "an office or employment" to induce them either to become a candidate or to withdraw their candidacy. 

Olivier, a quadriplegic, taped the conversations and released them publicly, prompting investigations by the Ontario Provincial Police and Elections Ontario. 

Gerry Lougheed Jr., a Liberal organizer and fundraiser in Sudbury, faces one charge of bribery under Ontario's Election Act. (Radio-Canada)

Wynne stood behind Sorbara throughout 2015 and most of 2016. Last October, Sorbara was named CEO of the Ontario Liberal Party and campaign director, a job that would have seen her spearhead Wynne's re-election effort.

Less than a month later, Lougheed and Sorbara were charged, and Sorbara resigned.

Their trial in Sudbury is scheduled for four weeks of testimony, with the Crown indicating that as many as 20 witnesses will be called.

McGuinty aides accused of wiping computers 

The allegations against the two McGuinty aides date back even further. Livingston and Miller are charged with breach of trust and mischief for allegedly wiping clean about 20 hard drives in the premier's office in early 2013, just before Wynne was sworn in.

Paquette believes that trial will have less impact politically on Wynne. 

"It's a more complicated issue to explain in a short amount of time and it was under another government," said Paquette. "It is a more serious charge but a less politically significant charge." 

The Livingston and Miller trial starts next Monday and is scheduled for six weeks. 

Laura Miller was Dalton McGuinty's deputy chief of staff. She is also charged with breach of trust and mischief for allegedly arranging to wipe government documents off computers in the premier's office. (Queen's Park)

That means both trials could be done this fall, with verdicts potentially in by Christmas. To Bozinoff, that schedule is the only silver lining for Wynne. 

"Now is better than any time later," Bozinoff said. "They're going to get this out of the way, get this behind them somehow." 

Both prosecutions are being handled by the federal Crown, to avoid putting provincial Crown attorneys in a conflict of interest. 

Acquittals would clearly be good news for the four accused but may not be enough to save Wynne and the Ontario Liberal brand in the court of public opinion.

"Even if it doesn't rise to the level of a conviction, [a trial] can be damaging to a political party that's already not doing well," said Paquette. 

"We're going to get the grand tour of all the misdemeanours," she said. "The general population, they're just going to hear the headlines, and shake their heads. I think it will have a negative impact."


Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.