SUDBURY — With hours to go until polls close in a hard-fought byelection, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s office is downplaying allegations in an OPP probe that began weeks ago into whether two Liberal operatives offered a candidate a job if he stepped aside.
“It is common for an investigator to make an assertion in an ITO (information to obtain) to obtain a warrant,” Wynne spokeswoman Zita Astravas said in a statement early Thursday evening.
“It in no way confirms that an offence occurred.”
She was referring to an online Toronto Sun report on police document used to get tapes of conversations between spurned Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier — now running as an independent — Sudbury Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed and Pat Sorbara, Wynne’s deputy chief of staff and a Liberal campaign director.
“I do believe that Gerry Lougheed and Pat Sorbara both engaged in soliciting and negotiating with Andrew Olivier,” Det.-Const. Erin Thomas, of the OPP anti-rackets squad, is quoted as writing in the document.
“I believe the words spoken by both . . . assists me in my belief the Criminal Code offence has been committed,” Thomas continued.
Noting that both Loughheed and Sorbara mentioned Wynne in their conversations with Olivier, Thomas added “I believe the references to the premier’s authority threatens the appearance of the government’s integrity.”
The police allegations have not been proven in court and no charges have been laid as police study the tapes the obtained officially after Olivier posted them publicly on Facebook two weeks ago.
Wynne, the Liberals and Sorbara have repeatedly maintained they did not illegally or improperly offer Olivier a job to step aside for defecting New Democrat MP Glenn Thibeault, whom Wynne appointed as her candidate in the belief he had a better chance of living.
It is against the Criminal Code to solicit or negotiate “in any manner . . . with respect to an appointment to an office in expectation of a direct or indirect reward, benefit or advantage.”
Opposition parties urged the OPP and Elections Ontario to investigate after Olivier released the tapes. Elections Ontario has interviewed Wynne and Sorbara already but is not commenting on its probe.
In the tapes, Sorbara is quoted as saying to Olivier “we should have the broader discussion about what it is that you’d be most interested in doing . . . whether it’s a full-time or part-time job in a constit (MPP’s constituency) office, whether it is appointments, supports or commissions, whether it is also going on the exec (party executive), there are lots . . . .”
Wynne, who also had a chat with Olivier that he said was not taped, has said previously there was “no specific offer” of a job from her or the party in any call, just discussions on Olivier’s future role in the party.
Lougheed has not commented on his conversation with Olivier.
Although the OPP investigation has been a well known fact in the campaign, opposition parties quickly jumped on the OPP accusations and their effect on the race.
“This just puts a black cloud over the entire election,” said Progressive Conservative House Leader Steve Clark.
“This shocking news confirms that the Liberals will do anything to save their own political skins,” NDP House leader Gilles Bisson said in a statement.
The byelection has been a grudge match between the Liberals and New Democrats, which polls suggested were neck-and-neck throughout a four-week campaign fought from doorstep-to-doorstep in the biting northern Ontario cold.
Both parties were eager to settle a score lingering since the June 12 provincial election in which Wynne’s Liberals vaulted to a majority, robbing NDP Leader Andrea Horwath of the balance of power she had enjoyed since 2011.
Despite that setback, New Democrats had won Sudbury, a long-time Liberal riding, after the spring retirement of veteran MPP and cabinet minister Rick Bartolucci.
It was one of three seats the NDP gained from Wynne, who in turn wrested three key central Toronto seats from the New Democrats in a blow to Horwath.
Then came the surprise late November resignation of New Democrat MPP Joe Cimino after just five months in the job.
The former teacher quit for unspecified family reasons, putting the riding back up for grabs.
The bitterness between the Liberals and NDP surged after Wynne lured Thibeault into crossing party lines, leaving his seat in Parliament to run for her in what critics called an “opportunistic” and “turncoat” move.
In the process, Wynne rejected Olivier, her candidate from the June vote who came within 980 votes of defeating Cimino.
Olivier is a quadriplegic mortgage broker who has said he often tapes conversations for note-taking purposes.
- With files from Richard J. Brennan and Robert Benzie