Around Queen's Park, the behind-the-scenes dysfunction of Dalton McGuinty's final months as Ontario premier is almost legendary.
The court documents that captivated the provincial capital on Thursday, however, suggest it might have been even worse than anyone on the outside realized.
The allegations against Mr. McGuinty's former chief of staff David Livingston, contained in a newly unsealed Ontario Provincial Police affidavit to obtain a search warrant, have not been proven in court. Nor has Mr. Livingston been charged with anything. In a letter to The Globe and Mail, his lawyer has stated that "Mr. Livingston did nothing wrong and certainly did not break the law as alleged," and expressed confidence that "a full review will show that the allegations are baseless."
The allegations, however, describe a combination of duplicitousness and amateurishness that plays like comedy, at least until one stops to consider the broader implications.
More than three months after Mr. McGuinty announced his retirement and about two-and-a-half weeks before he exited, it is alleged, his chief of staff spearheaded an effort to have data wiped from hard drives in the Premier's office.
This, according to police, involved bringing in someone from outside government and letting him strip files from staff computers. The alleged plan is said to have struck the head of the provincial public service, Peter Wallace, as so self-evidently stupid that when he caught wind of it he hesitated even to pen a memo explaining why it was a bad idea, for fear of insulting the political staff's intelligence.
According to the affidavit, Mr. Wallace didn't even know the half of it. It is alleged that of all the tech whizzes the Premier's office could have brought in from the outside, it went with Peter Faist – the "life partner" of Laura Miller, Mr. McGuinty's deputy chief of staff.
Then there is the way Mr. Livingston is alleged to have tried to gloss over giving a sort of super-access to the staff computers to an outsider: by claiming that it was for his own assistant, Wendy Wai, a woman who by multiple accounts had rather limited tech skills.
In an interview with OPP detectives, the document states, a government IT technician indicated that he knew Ms. Wai previously because of her lack of such skills. "She used to panic a lot if something wasn't working as expected and that's why we got a lot of calls from her," he is reported to have said.
For her part, Ms. Wai is said to have made a "spontaneous utterance" to the same detectives that she received "some sort of special access but I didn't know anything about what to do with it."
Suffice it to say that if there really was an effort to quietly make potentially troublesome files go away – possibly related to the gas-plants scandal that triggered the OPP investigation, though from the available evidence they could have been about anything – the plan wasn't exactly airtight.
In one sense that might be a good thing; it would be worse if misbehaviour were carried out efficiently enough never to be detected.
Yet if this really is the way Mr. McGuinty's most senior staff were behaving, it goes a long way toward explaining why the former premier left behind such a mess for both his successor and the province at large.
From the gratuitously nasty fight with teachers to attempts to keep the costs of gas-plant cancellations from coming to light, from apparent attempts to intimidate the Speaker of the legislature to sudden prorogation to the messy transfer of power to Kathleen Wynne – all might be best explained by the former premier's office bumbling about in a state of paranoia, too insulated or isolated to recognize the potential consequences of its actions.
For Ms. Wynne, the consequence is that she can scarcely get through a week or two talking about the issues she wants to talk about, without being haunted by ghost of her predecessor. Meanwhile, that ghost keeps holding the entire political discourse hostage; when we should be squarely focused on how to build the province's economy or preserve core services while getting the finances back in order, we're stuck talking about gas plants or alleged schemes to destroy metaphorical paper trails. And every cynical thought about politicians' motivations and their competence is reinforced, making it more difficult for governments of any stripe to do anything ambitious.
The confounding part is that much of this can be traced back to very smart people who got into politics and government with nobler intentions. Mr. Livingston, for instance, was a highly successful executive in the financial sector and then with the provincial agency Infrastructure Ontario; by all accounts he made the switch to politics to serve as Mr. McGuinty's final chief of staff because he thought he could make a positive contribution.
It was obvious well before the police allegations came to light that he got sucked up in something toxic, for which he and the rest of us are still paying.
Follow me on Twitter: @aradwanski