Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's top campaign organizer and another Liberal operative have been charged with bribery under the province's Election Act, a hit to the scandal-plagued Liberals as they plan their path to the next election.
Patricia Sorbara and Gerry Lougheed are accused of offering former Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier a government job to quit the race to represent the party in a by-election in Sudbury last year. The Liberals wanted Ms. Wynne's preferred candidate, Glenn Thibeault, to take the nomination unopposed.
Ms. Sorbara is the Ontario Liberal Party's chief executive officer and campaign director, in charge of overseeing the party's organizational machinery and planning for the 2018 election. Mr. Lougheed is a Sudbury businessman and Liberal fundraiser.
The charges, laid on Monday, are the latest ethical controversy for the Liberal government, which has been under fire for a cash-for-access fundraising system. And two other Liberal staffers face a criminal trial next year over accusations they orchestrated a plan to erase e-mails and other government documents related to the cancellations of two gas-fired power plants.
The case is also certain to renew questions about Ms. Wynne's role in the Sudbury affair. In recordings of conversations with Mr. Olivier, Ms. Sorbara and Mr. Lougheed said they were speaking with him on the Premier's behalf.
Ms. Sorbara, 60, faces two charges of bribery, and Mr. Lougheed, 62, faces one. They will appear in court in Sudbury on Nov. 21. Federal prosecutors will handle the case to keep it at arm's-length from the provincial government. If convicted, they face up to two years less a day in prison or a $25,000 fine.
"This has been a complex and unprecedented investigation for the OPP Anti-Rackets Branch, which has culminated in bribery charges under the Election Act of Ontario," OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes said in a statement on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Ms. Wynne refused to answer questions about whether she ordered Ms. Sorbara and Mr. Lougheed to offer Mr. Olivier a job to get him out of the nomination battle.
"We've had hundreds of questions in the legislature; you've asked me hundreds of questions about this situation," she said.
Ms. Wynne has defended Ms. Sorbara and Mr. Lougheed in the past, contending they only discussed potential jobs with Mr. Olivier because they wanted to keep him in politics, not in an attempt to bribe him.
In a letter to Liberal president Vince Borg on Tuesday, Ms. Sorbara resigned from her jobs with the party and proclaimed her innocence. She has been campaign director since 2013, and left a post as Ms. Wynne's deputy chief of staff in September to become CEO of the party and focus on the next election.
"I am shocked by any suggestion that I have done anything wrong," she wrote.
"I will defend myself against these allegations to the best of my ability and with the tremendous support that surrounds me."
Ms Sorbara's lawyers released a statement challenging how officials are applying the Elections Act.
"These are regulatory offences and stem from legislation that, it appears, is being applied in an unprecedented and extraordinary way," said the statement from William Trudell and Erin Dann.
Mr. Borg told The Globe and Mail the party will pay Ms. Sorbara's legal bills and that she will receive "a fair and generous" severance package. Mr. Borg said the party has paid Mr. Lougheed's legal bills in the past, but party executives have not yet discussed whether to do so this time.
The OPP criminally charged Mr. Lougheed, but not Ms. Sorbara, in connection with the case last year, but prosecutors stayed the charge a few months later. They have until April to decide whether to reactivate it.
Mr. Lougheed's lawyer, Michael Lacy, said on Tuesday his client maintains his innocence.
"We are disappointed that the police having originally charged Gerry criminally only to have those charges stayed by the Crown have now laid charges under the Elections Act," he wrote in an e-mail.
"Although these are not criminal charges, Gerry has maintained that he didn't do anything that would attract a culpable finding. We will review the evidence that has been compiled and respond in court to the allegations."
In February, 2015, Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa ruled
Ms. Sorbara and Mr. Lougheed broke the provincial Election Act's anti-bribery provisions, which make it illegal to "give, procure or promise" a job to get someone to drop their candidacy. Mr. Essensa cannot lay charges himself, so referred the matter to the OPP.
Mr. Olivier, who is quadriplegic and records conversations because he has difficulty taking notes, released recordings of his discussions with Ms. Sorbara and Mr. Lougheed before the by-election.
In one telephone call, Ms. Sorbara told Mr. Olivier of possible job opportunities: "We should have the broader discussion about what is it that you'd be most interested in doing and then decide what shape that could take.
Whether it's a full-time or a part-time job at a constituency office, whether it is appointments to boards or commissions, whether it is also going on the executive."
She said Ms. Wynne wanted to ensure Mr. Olivier had "a role," adding: "If there were other things that you're particularly interested in that is within her realm to make you part of, then she is more than prepared to do that."
In a meeting, Mr. Lougheed told Mr. Olivier he had come to see him "on behalf of the Premier" and that he could receive a "reward" for quitting the race: "The Premier wants to talk to you. We would like to present to you options in terms of appointments, jobs, whatever."
Mr. Thibeault won the by-election and is now Energy Minister.