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In Ontario's Power Plant Scandal, The Crime AND the Cover Up Stink

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It's a well-worn political cliche that it's not the crime that kills you in government, it's the cover-up. The logic is that the public is generally forgiving of minor instances of political wrongdoing  --  an embezzlement here, a crooked contract there  --  but considerably less so when politicians begin brazenly misusing government power to simply hide their own embarrassments.

What makes the power plant cancellation scandal currently enveloping the Ontario government of Premier Kathleen Wynne so uniquely awful is that both crime and cover up are equally offensive. This isn't a case of a minor offense being overshadowed by a mighty cover-up, but instead an equal-opportunity outrage in which either offense or cover-up should provide ample justification for a decisive non-confidence vote in parliament followed by swift butt-kicking at the ballot box.

Here's what we know. In 2011, the year in which they were facing a tough battle for re-election, the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty made an abrupt, strategic decision to cancel the construction of two power plants in swing Liberal ridings that didn't want them, and re-locate them to Tory ridings that didn't need them (one had a perfectly good power plant already, in fact). Subsequent testimony from folks in the know has revealed that the government flatly didn't consider the costs of this decision  --  it simply had to be done. 

One of the two plants, located in Mississauga, was already half-built, thereby burning over 64 million in "sunk costs" of wasted equipment and labour alone. The other, more embryonic plant, situated in Oakville, merely required millions in legal fees and compensation handouts as bureaucrats scrambled to fend off a breech of contract lawsuit with the affected contractors. According to the province's auditor-general, the taxpayers' total tab for turfing both will likely tally over a billion bucks.

Though ex-premier McGuinty has clung to his lame defense that he was only thinking of the children and their tiny, fragile lungs in cancelling the plants (despite the fact that they were just going to be built elsewhere to pollute the lungs of Tory children) no one really believes this. Even a normally sympathetic press has always reported the decision as a nakedly political one, and thus one of the most brazen misuses of government power and public money for partisan gain in Canadian history. Certainly the worst such abuse in Ontario history, as Conservative leader Tim Hudak was recently said to quip.

But what makes things all the worse is the fact, unveiled by the Ontario privacy commissioner last summer, that shortly after the power plant decision was made, senior people in the McGuinty administration deleted a bunch of emails about the decision, almost certainly to cover their tracks. (It is "difficult to accept" any other explanation, the commissioner concluded diplomatically). At the time, it was noted that "staff" in Premier McGuinty's office had attempted to conspire with the Cabinet Secretary  --  the head of the Ontario Civil Service  --  to pull the deleting scheme off, which brings us where we are today.

Police court filings released to the Ottawa Citizen Thursday morning have revealed that the "staff" the piracy commissioner alluded to was in fact none other than McGuinty chief of staff David Livingstone, who the cops are now recommending be charged with breech of trust.

Based on the testimony of Cabinet Secretary Peter Wallace, Livingstone was borderline frightening in his sheer lack of ethics.

"Like, really?!" the Secretary is quoted as saying, reenacting his reaction to Livingstone's plan, "I'm not going to write you a memo saying don't do that, because you already know: Don't do that."

But Livingtson had other plans, and allegedly recruited another high-ranking civil servant, David Nicholl, to obtain the Ontario government's special "global password" that allowed him access to everything on the Queen's Park mainframe, on the pretext that this was a direct request from Premier McGuinty himself.

Things then turned to comic mischief when the conspirators evidently concluded they were too technologically incompetent to pull of the scheme on their own, necessitating the 39-year-old boyfriend of McGuinty's deputy chief of staff be recruited to do the hacking.

And it worked. Everything's gone now. "Even though many of us believe you can never actually ever delete email records, in fact you can," in the words of the Privacy Commissioner.

Now it is not, as some sad defenders of this government have observed, technically a crime to delete emails, even incriminating emails. It is, however, a crime for public servants to organize elaborate conspiracies "not authorized by the trust" of the position he holds, which is what the OPP evidently consider Livingtone's actions in granting sweeping computer access to a non-government employee in the service of no obvious public interest.

This is disturbing stuff, but in many respects it's also a sideshow from the central plot. Though Livingstone may soon be charged with breaching public trust, the Ontario public's actual trust was broken the day two power plants were unnecessarily cancelled with open disregard for cost  --  all in the service of winning two measly seats in a provincial election.

Indeed, one could argue the Livingstone side show actually helps Premier Wynne in a way, as it creates a new narrative about a bad apple (or two, or six) in the McGuinty administration hacking into computers, and diverts attention away from the fact that the Premier herself was one of the co-chairs of McGuinty's reelection strategy team, and a woman who, in her previous capacity as a key cabinet minister, read and signed documents relating to the plant cancellations.

As Liberals, and Liberal supporters plunge deeper into damage control mode, analogies will doubtlessly be drawn to Prime Minister Harper's own chief of staff troubles. In both cases, after all, we have heads of government claiming to be in the dark regarding what their right-hand men were up to, and frankly, in both cases, the fair-minded among us are probably right to take them at their word.

The critical difference, however, is the sin of Harper's ex-chief of staff was paying $90,000 out of his own pocket to reimburse taxpayers for the dubious expense filings of an unlikable, greedy senator. At least in that case, one could argue mistakes were made, but for all the right reasons.

Not so with Ontario's mess. It's scandal all the way down.

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The Many Faces Of Kathleen Wynne
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