Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is challenging Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to either back up his "false" and "defamatory" allegations that she oversaw the purging of government documents or face legal action.
Ms. Wynne has said that her predecessor's chief of staff – the individual at the centre of a criminal case into the alleged destruction of government records – never worked in her office. Nor did she instruct anyone to destroy information.
The Tories have seized on information contained in police documents describing Dalton McGuinty's final days in office. The documents, unsealed by an Ottawa judge last week, show that Mr. McGuinty's former chief of staff, David Livingston, had obtained extraordinary access to computers in the premier's office for a six-week period that extended into Ms. Wynne's time in office.
There is nothing in the documents that suggests any records were deleted after Ms. Wynne was sworn into office on Feb. 11, 2013. Mr. Livingston resigned the same day she took power, according to the documents, which have not been tested in court.
In an open letter to Mr. Hudak on Sunday, Ms. Wynne demanded that he stop repeating "untrue" statements and immediately remove them from the PC Party's website.
"These allegations and accusations are false and utterly unsupported," she says in the letter, "and you ought to know it."
Ms. Wynne warns that she is prepared to take legal action against Mr. Hudak. She has obtained legal advice from Mark Freiman, a lawyer at Lerners LLP and a former deputy attorney-general of Ontario.
Legal experts said politicians have just as much right as those in private life to protect their reputation and set the record straight if they feel they've been wronged. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, sued the Liberal Party in 2008 over statements that he knew of an alleged attempt to bribe Chuck Cadman, an independent MP dying of cancer. The libel suit was later dropped.
"It's fair enough for anyone in public life – Liberal, Conservative, NDP – to draw a line in the sand and challenge their critics to substantiate what they're saying," Peter Downard, a defamation lawyer at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, said on Sunday.
Legal experts said Ms. Wynne has upped the ante by threatening legal action, putting the onus on Mr. Hudak to substantiate his allegations.
But as of Sunday evening, a news release linking Ms. Wynne to the alleged deletion of e-mails and other records remained prominently displayed on the party's website under the heading "Cover Up."
"She oversaw and possibly ordered the destruction of documents during the cover-up," the statement alleges. "This is now clearly more Kathleen Wynne's scandal than Dalton McGuinty's."
Tory energy critic Lisa MacLeod accused Ms. Wynne on Sunday of trying to muzzle the opposition in order to avoid accountability over the controversial cancellation of two gas-fired power plants.
"This is a media stunt by Kathleen Wynne," Ms. MacLeod said on a conference call with reporters. "She is simply trying to send a chill down the backs of each and every opposition member who has the so-called audacity to question her."
Police believe Mr. Livingston committed a criminal breach of trust by allowing a non-government IT professional, Peter Faist, to gain "unrestricted" access to documents on 24 hard drives in the premier's office.
Mr. Faist is described in the documents as the "life partner" of Mr. Livingston's former deputy, Laura Miller. Mr. Livingston's lawyer has said he did nothing wrong.
The special access Mr. Livingston obtained to the hard drives was in effect between Feb. 6 and March 20 of last year, according to the documents.
However, the documents describe only two days when Mr. Faist logged on to computers in the premier's office: Feb. 6 and Feb 7 – just days before Ms. Wynne was sworn into office.
"This did not happen after I became Premier on February 11th," Ms. Wynne told reporters last week. "I never instructed anyone to destroy information. I had no knowledge of anyone destroying information."
TEXT OF LETTER FROM WYNNE TO HUDAK
March 30, 2014
Mr. Tim Hudak
Leader of the Official Opposition
Room 381, Legislative Building
Re: Open letter from Premier Kathleen Wynne to Tim Hudak
Dear Mr. Hudak
During your press conference on March 27th you made several false, misleading and defamatory allegations about me. You alleged that I personally "oversaw and possibly ordered the criminal destruction of documents" and that criminal conduct took place in my office. The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party repeated these false allegations on its website and in a public mailing.
These allegations and accusations are false and utterly unsupported, and you ought to know it.
As political leaders it is our role and public duty to engage in spirited political debate on issues. The decision to relocate the gas plants and the facts related to the ongoing police investigation are legitimate subjects for this political debate. False, misleading and defamatory statements are not, and they represent the worst kind of politics. That is why I am writing this open letter to you.
There should be no tolerance for false and defamatory accusations as a means to gain political power.
I am asking you and your caucus to immediately stop repeating these untrue statements and to immediately remove them from the PC Party website and all other communications.
I have sought and obtained legal advice regarding your comments, and if steps are not taken immediately, I will have no choice but to take all necessary and appropriate steps to ensure your false statements are corrected.
Premier of Ontario