Wynne takes stand to show she has noth­ing to hide

Toronto Star - - CANADA - Martin Regg Cohn

Kath­leen Wynne wasn’t on trial Wed­nes­day in a Sud­bury court­room. But as the first sit­ting premier to ap­pear on the wit­ness stand, Wynne faced her own trial by fire.

Equally, Hil­lary Clin­ton wasn’t on trial in a con­gres­sional hear­ing room, or in an abortive FBI probe last year. But we know how that ended on the cam­paign trail.

Legally, Wynne could have dodged this week’s court­room con­fronta­tion. Like all MPPs, she en­joys par­lia­men­tary im­mu­nity from ju­di­cial obli­ga­tions.

Po­lit­i­cally, how­ever, the premier had ev­ery rea­son to waive those rights. By agree­ing to tes­tify in the bribery trial of her for­mer top cam­paign aide and a lo­cal party loy­al­ist, Wynne wanted to show in a pro­vin­cial court­room that she had noth­ing to hide.

But she had ev­ery­thing to de­fend in On­tario’s broader court of pub­lic opin­ion this week — not least her po­lit­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion.

Wynne took a per­sonal gam­ble, al­beit with lit­tle down­side. In our par­lia­men­tary sys­tem, a premier is prac­tised at the al­ter­nat­ing rituals of Ques­tion Pe­riod and news con­fer­ences, which tend to be more chal­leng­ing than the plod­ding Crown prose­cu­tors she faced in Sud­bury.

Yet if the po­lit­i­cal risk was man­age­able, the po­ten­tial up­side isn’t so mea­sur­able for a premier try­ing to re­build her rep­u­ta­tion. In our le­gal sys­tem, an ac­cused is pre­sumed in­no­cent un­til proven guilty; in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, a premier is pre­sumed cor­rupt un­til proven oth­er­wise (even if she is not per­son­ally on trial).

It is un­sur­pris­ing that politi­cians are not given the ben­e­fit of the doubt, given that they are prone to say with a straight face that their baloney is filet mignon. That said, the premier’s ut­ter­ances were de­liv- ered un­der oath Wed­nes­day, so there is more rea­son to take Wynne at her word, if only this once.

In truth, there were no sur­prises in her tes­ti­mony, be­cause few of the facts in this con­vo­luted tale are in dis­pute. The cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance comes in the con­text.

Our ac­com­pa­ny­ing news cov­er­age lays out the back­ground to the seem­ingly sor­did story of at­tempted bribery: A failed can­di­date in the 2014 elec­tion, An­drew Olivier, wanted to run again in a 2015 by­elec­tion un­til the premier side­lined him by set­tling on a more electable can­di­date, Glenn Thibeault.

In the af­ter­math, the premier’s team tried to pacify Olivier by dan­gling the prospect of an ap­point­ment if he would sup­port Thibeault in a show of party unity. Their mis­take was to go out of their way to con­sole Olivier, a quad­ri­plegic who records his calls be­cause he can­not take notes.

And so a scan­dal was born: Olivier taped top Lib­eral cam­paign aide Pat Sor­bara sug­gest­ing he con­sider the ap­point­ment process, and recorded lo­cal Lib­eral fundraiser Gerry Lougheed do­ing the same.

When he posted the em­bar­rass­ing record­ings on Face­book, the op­po­si­tion pounced by fil­ing an OPP com­plaint. Once the cops were on the scent, the story seemed to stink.

At first, they laid Crim­i­nal Code charges against Lougheed. When the cops and Crown re­al­ized the chances of a con­vic­tion were re­mote, they down­graded the case to lesser pro­vin­cial of­fences un­der the barely un­der­stood and rarely in­voked Elec­tion Act — re­ly­ing on word­ing clearly in­tended to guard against greedy land devel­op­ers buy­ing off dis­si­dents with hand­some bribes, not party lead­ers rid­ding them­selves of losers.

That Olivier was never given any con­crete of­fers, merely in­vited to go through the ap­pli­ca­tion process — for un­paid vol­un­teer po­si­tions or a con­stituency as­sis­tant job that typ­i­cally pays a whop­ping $35,000 a year — has been lost in all the bribery hy­per­bole. In re­al­ity, Olivier couldn’t be bought off be­cause he had al­ready been ruled out for the nom­i­na­tion, once the premier de­cided to ap­point Thibeault us­ing her power un­der the party con­sti­tu­tion. Which makes the whole mud­dle moot. Chi­canery isn’t bribery.

Just ask Mike Duffy, who was ex­com­mu­ni­cated by his fel­low se­na­tors and ex­co­ri­ated by his for­mer me­dia col­leagues, be­fore be­ing ex­on­er­ated by a judge who mocked the po­lice case.

When you crim­i­nal­ize the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the po­lit­i­cal game, and when you weaponize the Elec­tion Act, you ar­rive at the ab­sur­dity that is Sud­bury.

No one can pre­dict a judge’s ver­dict. But this is a case that should never have gone to court, and may one day come back to haunt the op­po­si­tion PCs as they deal with nom­i­na­tion lit­i­ga­tion com­pli­ca­tions of their own. mcohn@thes­tar.ca, Twit­ter: @reg­gcohn

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