Skip to main content

My view of Ottawa as an insular if not incestuous village swarming with the simple-minded was confirmed this week with the belated eruption of a story about the recent ruling in the Larry O'Brien case.

Mr. O'Brien is the Ottawa mayor who was cleared last week on what could be called pretend influence peddling charges - how very Canadian - rooted in the November 2006 municipal elections. Basically, he was accused of pretending to have friends in high places when he allegedly offered to help arrange a job for opponent Terry Kilrea on the National Parole Board in exchange for Mr. Kilrea dropping out of the race.

After more than two years of rumours, trial by press (and even a hand-in-glove affidavit, which Mr. Kilrea swore out at the request of the Ottawa Citizen), and finally a judge-alone trial before Ontario Associate Chief Justice Douglas Cunningham of the Superior Court, both charges against Mr. O'Brien were dismissed.

Story continues below advertisement

Judge Cunningham's decision runs to 21 pages. It makes for pleasant reading, actually, as good legal judgments often do. What a pity none of those now claiming to be outraged about what he said in it appears to have actually read the bloody thing.

Essentially, what happened is that the judge was smeared as a sexist pig, the first blow coming on the front page of The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.

Seven words of the approximately 700 the judge wrote about one of the prosecution witnesses, Nepean-Carleton Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod, were excised from the judgment, gutted of their context and then, in the body of the story "reacted to," as is the modern fashion in journalism, by those with an axe, philosophical or political, to grind.

Ms. MacLeod was called by prosecutor Scott Hutchison because, in July 2006, when she learned Mr. O'Brien was considering running, she arranged a meeting with him. She was excited at the prospect of a fellow Conservative, right-of-centre candidate and wanted to offer him some pointers about potential campaign workers.

But during the conversation, she said, Mr. O'Brien also indicated that "somebody was talking" about getting Mr. Kilrea, who was already in the race, "an appointment."

Judge Cunningham found that Ms. MacLeod's evidence wasn't reliable and that he couldn't give it much weight. He wasn't doubting her truthfulness, as he made abundantly clear in the explanatory section of his judgment, but rather her accuracy - it had been a particularly busy time in the young MPP's life.

As he wrote, "During cross-examination, the defence was able to demonstrate that there were a number of rather significant things going on in her life when she gave her statement to the police in early May, 2007.

Story continues below advertisement

"She was commuting regularly to Toronto for her work, leaving her husband and child in Ottawa. As well, in March 2007, her father was diagnosed with cancer … without reciting her evidence in detail, I conclude that any references to Mr. Kilrea being in line for an appointment were casual, beyond the real subject matter of their conversation and really quite peripheral to the matters at hand."

Her recollection, the judge concluded, "of a brief, casual portion of her conversation is so imprecise that, through no fault of her own, I must assign it little weight."

These were innocuous remarks made in the course of Judge Cunningham doing his job: As he explained off the top, he had to consider all of the evidence, weigh it and decide if the prosecutor had proven the essential elements of the offences beyond a reasonable doubt.

Most importantly, in what was a he said/he said contest, with Messrs. O'Brien and Kilrea offering dramatically different versions of what happened, the judge had to carefully assess the credibility of each witness, including the supporting cast.

This he did, starting with Mr. Kilrea himself, whom he found inaccurate and not particularly reliable and a demonstrated master manipulator of the media with a thirst for keeping his name in the spotlight.

Then the judge moved on to five other witnesses deemed by the prosecutor to be "corroborative" of Mr. Kilrea's version of things - Mr. O'Brien's pollster, whom the judge found forthright and unambiguous; a friend of Mr. Kilrea's, whom the judge said a "strong antipathy" to Mr. O'Brien and was unreliable; two local Tories who were O'Brien supporters and whose evidence he deemed wasn't determinative either way of the key questions, and Ms. MacLeod, who was revealed in cross-examination as all over the map about what exactly she remembered was said about the appointment and who said it.

Story continues below advertisement

And the sum total of what the prosecutor had called "a wealth" of independent corroborative evidence was, Judge Cunningham said, in some instances not independent but coloured, often vague and not corroborative at all of Mr. Kilrea's version. What there was was a wealth of reasonable doubt, and so he acquitted Mr. O'Brien.

The Globe on Tuesday ran an enormous picture of Ms. MacLeod, looking just as she is - young and pretty. What we call in the newspaper business a deck read, "Can a busy wife, mother and politician give reliable evidence? A judge says no. He dismissed her evidence because she was commuting to Toronto, 'leaving her husband and child in Ottawa'." Her response, and this was in big red letters: "I didn't know truth had a gender."

Then came a sly line in the piece which noted that, "Judge Cunningham is 69; he was appointed to the bench in 1991." The inference meant to be drawn was clear: Old-school judge versus young working mother.

In the story itself, a veteran political strategist said the judge's remarks (by which I take to mean the seven accursed words) were "absolutely beyond the pale." A spokeswoman for Equal Voice, an organization that promotes women in public office, said, "Would the same approach have been taken with a male politician who is commuting and has a young family at home? Probably not." A Liberal organizer noted sadly that the remarks speak "to the working conditions young women in public life face."

What a complete and utter load of hooey it all is. Truth doesn't have a gender, and it didn't in Judge Cunningham's decision.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨