Citing a lack of evidence, a judge has acquitted two Ontario Liberal organizers charged with bribery in a Sudbury by-election.
With a general election expected next summer, the trial of a pair of Liberal organizers had been a gift for opposition parties, who used the court appearances over the past two months as an opportunity to cast Premier Kathleen Wynne's government as scandal-ridden.
On Tuesday, the Ontario Court of Justice judge in the case agreed with the defence's request to end the trial before any defence witnesses were called. Based solely on the Crown's evidence, no reasonable jury could convict the two, Justice Howard Borenstein concluded in a 40-minute decision read in the Sudbury courtroom.
Patricia Sorbara, who served as Ms. Wynne's deputy chief of staff and Liberal campaign director, and local Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed, said they were relieved after the acquittal ended more than two years of legal drama. They faced allegations from Andrew Olivier, a Sudbury man, who said they had offered him a job or appointment within the party to drop out of a nomination race and support Ms. Wynne's preferred candidate in a 2015 by-election.
After his acquittal, Mr. Lougheed questioned the political motivation behind the case. "I have some concerns about the investigation and the proceedings because I might suggest the taxpayers of this province have spent an awful lot of money on this case, the investigations, and my question would be why," he told reporters outside the courthouse.
While the Crown argued in the case that the pair had attempted to bribe Mr. Olivier as a candidate, in violation of the province's Election Act, the judge found that Mr. Olivier could never have been the party's candidate because Ms. Wynne had already decided to appoint Glenn Thibeault – then the area's NDP MP and now Ontario's Energy Minister. Ms. Sorbara and Mr. Lougheed could not be found guilty of inducing the man to refrain from becoming a candidate, the judge said.
Mr. Lougheed's lawyer, Michael Lacy, said the case should never have gone to court. Ms. Sorbara's lawyer, Brian Greenspan, stressed that a directed verdict is an unusual decision. "These are rare events. They occur when prosecutions ought not to have been brought at the outset. They occur when the law states very, very clearly that there was simply no evidence upon which any reasonable jury could possibly have convicted," Mr. Greenspan told reporters after exiting.
Mr. Thibeault, who was a witness in the case, said that the pair and Ontario's Liberals faced "complete vindication" after the judge's decision. He said he called his wife immediately after the decision was announced to tell her that the legal cloud hanging over his by-election was over. "As I've said all along, we've believed that we did nothing wrong; the judge's decision clearly emphasized that," he told reporters at Queen's Park.
The Sudbury trial had been a highly political affair, with both opposition parties calling for an investigation from the Ontario Provincial Police and Elections Ontario soon after the allegations surfaced. Ms. Wynne travelled to Sudbury and appeared as a witness in a highly unusual move for a sitting premier. After numerous attack ads by his party against the Liberals, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown now faces a threat by Ms. Wynne to sue him for defamation after he said the Premier was on trial – she was not.
In the hours after the acquittals, both opposition parties made it clear that their attacks would not stop, despite the court's decision. "The reality is that this is a scandal-ridden government," Mr. Brown told reporters. "There seems to have been a consistent pattern with this government of political corruption; they run from scandal to scandal."
Gilles Bisson, a New Democrat MPP who attended several days of the trial, said that Ms. Wynne's Liberals were "beating bribery charges." He said that while they'd won in a court of law, the long-ruling party had lost in the court of public of opinion. "People have been disturbed by the spectacle of two senior Liberals standing trial," he said in a statement.
Ms. Sorbara also faced a second charge, alleging that she bribed Mr. Thibeault to become the candidate by arranging for paid jobs on the by-election campaign for two of his constituency staff. The judge also threw out that allegation.
A statement from the Ontario Liberals said Ms. Sorbara is being welcomed back to the party's campaign team.
With a report from The Canadian Press