Justice slipping slowly as probe drags on
The OPP’s Anti-Rackets Branch is a formidable force.
Its name conjures images of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables — the fearless cops who brought Al Capone to justice when gangsters infiltrated the highest reaches of police and government in Chicago.
More recently, the provincial police force has seemed like Ontario’s own overseer, charged with keeping our politicians honest. But what if that oversight role gets turned upside down, with the police becoming a permanent part of the political process, not merely policing it?
More than eight months after opening an investigation into opposition allegations of corruption in a Sudbury byelection, the cops are still on the case — if there is one. No doubt some cases take a long time — the complexity of criminality, the exigencies of evidence-gathering, the lacuna of the law.
This isn’t one of them. We’re not talking about CSI-style forensics here.
The key evidence was posted on Facebook just weeks after the alleged offences took place last December: unexpurgated audio of prominent Liberals clumsily trying to persuade a failed candidate (Andrew Olivier) to make way for a star candidate (Glenn Thibeault).
Eliot Ness never had it so easy in pre-digital Chicago: The OPP downloaded the tapes from Facebook, then went back to the source — Olivier himself — to hear his originals.
Thibeault, you may vaguely recall, was not the subject of any allegations or investigations. But other prominent Liberals were accused of trying to improperly influence Olivier to not seek elected office.
The big fish was Pat Sorbara, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s deputy chief of staff and chief political fixer, who was caught on tape suggesting a consolation prize if he quietly made way for Thibeault. Bribery or impropriety?
Among her suggestions was volunteering for an unpaid position on the party executive, or working as a part-time constituency assistant (a job that pays roughly $38,000 a year, which doesn’t buy much influence with a man of affluence like Olivier).
Despite wild claims of criminality, Sudbury voters long ago rendered their verdict, ignoring the opposition allegations by choosing Thibeault as their MPP last February. Perhaps they concluded that this was standard political gamesmanship played by all sides, and that there were more important issues for the people — and police — to focus on.
After transcribing the tape last winter and interviewing everyone involved, the OPP promised a decision on whether to lay charges by spring, then it set a summertime target. With the changing of the seasons, their timeline keeps changing.
There’s nothing wrong with taking your time to get it right, but it’s worth asking how long the police will let a cloud of criminality linger. Is the investigation in limbo? Have the police been going back and forth with prosecutors who wonder if there are reasonable prospects of conviction? Have the OPP been unable to persuade a justice of the peace to approve charges?
At a certain point, someone should say something: Either lay charges, or say no charges. But the OPP’s sense of timing has always been odd. We have seen this law-and-disorder movie before.
In the final days of the last year’s provincial election, the Anti-Rackets Branch rattled the campaign by leaking new details to the media about an ongoing probe into the final days of Dalton McGuinty’s premiership in 2013. The sudden commotion, so close to the June 12 vote, could have turned the election if the news cycle had gone another way, and critics had a field day trying to cast the Liberals as irredeemably corrupt even with Wynne as his successor.
Voters came to a different conclusion, but you can’t blame rival parties for trying. For an opposition politician, the fastest path to the front page is to call in the police, knowing they have a tin ear on timing and a legalistic approach to politics.
It’s tempting to elevate backroom impropriety to courtroom criminality because the two are easily conflated. But one suspects that prosecutors and judges charged with cleaning up our streets might have bigger priorities than trying to sanitize all political pathways.
Time’s up. Catch them if you can, or clear the air and move on.
Either way, it’s time to ratchet up the pace at the Anti-Rackets Branch. Just as justice delayed is justice denied, delaying decisions can be just plain unjust. Martin Regg Cohn’s Ontario politics column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @reggcohn
Recordings by Andrew Olivier, seen here with Kathleen Wynne, reveal Liberals trying to persuade him not to run in a byelection.