POLITICS

Ontario Gas Plants: McGuinty Aide Laura Miller Testifies About Bid To Influence Speaker

08/06/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/05/2013 05:12 EDT
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TORONTO - Ontario's opposition parties were fuming Tuesday after their questions about top Liberals attempting to pressure the Speaker of the legislature to change a preliminary finding of contempt against the government were ruled out of order.

The Liberal chair of the justice committee, Shafiq Qaadri, warned that he would reject any questions about emails that appeared to show officials in former premier Dalton McGuinty's office tried last fall to convince Speaker Dave Levac to change his ruling.

However, Qaadri allowed Laura Miller, a former deputy chief of staff in McGuinty's office, to explain her emails about the Speaker in an opening statement to the committee before ruling all questions on the topic out of order.

The New Democrats said the ruling "stinks," and suggested Premier Kathleen Wynne's office directed Qaadri to shut down the committee's investigation of Liberal attempts to influence the Speaker.

"Either he had decided to shut down questions, or he's been directed to shut down questions," said NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns.

"We don't think that we had a fair hearing today."

The Progressive Conservatives also felt someone above Qaadri's pay grade had ordered him to block any questions about the Speaker.

"This didn't just fall out of his lap," said PC energy critic Vic Fedeli.

"There's been a discussion at some level to purposefully shut down the committee's investigation of that angle. Clearly this cover up just gets deeper."

Wynne's office flatly rejected any involvement in the committee's proceedings, and said it was the clerk of the legislature that decided questions about emails regarding the Speaker were beyond its mandate.

"This is a completely baseless accusation from the Opposition," said Wynne's press secretary Zita Astravas. "Committee chairs are completely independent from party politics from any side of the house."

Miller told the committee that she and other unelected Liberals in McGuinty's office did not try to pressure the Speaker to change his contempt ruling against then-energy minister Chris Bentley, which stemmed from the government's initial refusal to release all documents on two cancelled gas plants.

She testified the Liberals simply wanted the Speaker to know that they felt the Progressive Conservatives were unfairly targeting Bentley, who could have lost his licence to practice law if found guilty of contempt by the legislature.

"The PCs announced that even if the government met the deadline for document production, they would proceed with the contempt motion against Mr. Bentley," she told the committee. "Just like a hockey player who calls out unfair play to the referee, we will call out the PCs unfair play to our referee, the Speaker."

After the Speaker refused to change his preliminary contempt ruling, McGuinty prorogued the legislature and resigned as premier, pre-empting the public hearings into the cancellation of the gas plants.

"One thing I learned from Laura Miller was that the prorogation decision went in high gear once the gas plant documents were released," said Tabuns.

In his only comment on the issue to date, Levac put out a statement last week that did not deny the Liberals had attempted to persuade him to change his ruling, but said he never felt undue pressure when meeting with officials from any party.

"I have never felt unable to make an informed, objective and procedurally sound decision, free of political interference,'' Levac said in the statement.

"The fact that the ruling did stand should also speak for itself.''

Fedeli also accused Miller of lying Tuesday after she said she had no correspondence on the cancelled gas plants, even though she was named or copied on over one thousand emails as senior Liberals discussed how to handle the controversy.

"I did nothing wrong," Miller fired back.

The Liberals initially said it would hurt the province's negotiating position with the developers of the cancelled gas plants if they turned over all the documents requested by the committee, but have since released over 110,000 pages of correspondence.

The opposition parties say the Liberals scrapped the gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville, at a cost of at least $585 million, to try to save seats in the 2011 election.

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