TORONTO — Ontario's governing Liberals were rocked Thursday when police laid criminal charges against a veteran party fundraiser in connection with bribery allegations in a Sudbury byelection last February.
The Opposition immediately demanded Kathleen Wynne step down, saying "this case strikes right at the heart of the premier's office."
Gerry Lougheed, 61, a prominent Sudbury Liberal, was charged with one count of counselling an offence not committed and one count of unlawfully influencing or negotiating appointments.
The charges follow an Ontario Provincial Police investigation launched after Andrew Olivier, the Liberal candidate in the 2014 general election, said he was offered an appointment to step aside in the Feb. 5 byelection for Wynne's preferred candidate, former New Democrat MP Glenn Thibeault.
Olivier released recorded telephone conversations with Lougheed, whom he describes as "a Liberal king maker," and with Wynne's deputy chief of staff, Pat Sorbara, in which he said he was offered a job or appointment to step aside.
Both Lougheed and Sorbara denied the allegations. Lougheed issued a release saying he "will be vigorously defending these charges in the courts."
Lougheed also resigned Thursday as chair of Sudbury's Police Services Board and as chancellor of Huntington University until the case is resolved.
The OPP issued a release saying the force would not comment further on the case as it goes through the courts.
"This has been a very uncommon investigation," said the statement from the OPP's anti-rackets branch, which began the criminal probe in January.
"It's a shameful day for Ontario," said Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown. "Will the premier step aside during this process? Allegedly Gerry Lougheed was her spokesman."
The New Democrats wanted to know who gave Lougheed his marching orders for the conversation with Olivier, but stopped short of joining the Tories in demanding Wynne step aside.
"It may eventually come to that, but today's question is who gave the order," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "Was it the premier? Was it somebody in her office?"
Wynne admitted it was "a serious situation" and said she found the criminal charges upsetting.
"I have been very open with the legislature, with the media, with the people of Ontario about the situation in Sudbury during the by-election," she said. "I never believed that my staff did anything wrong and we've co-operated fully with the investigation."
Asked who ordered Lougheed to call Olivier to ask him to step aside for the byelection, Wynne refused to comment because the case is before the courts.
Wynne did say the OPP informed Sorbara's lawyer that the premier's deputy chief of staff would not face criminal charges in connection with the byelection.
However, Sorbara could face charges under Ontario's Election Act.
Elections Ontario concluded months ago that Lougheed and Sorbara's actions constituted an "apparent contravention"' of the Election Act concerning bribery, but the agency has no mandate to conduct prosecutions so the OPP must make the decision whether or not to lay charges under the Act.
Wynne always maintained the Liberals were just trying to keep Olivier in the party fold, and that there was no need to offer him anything because she had already decided he would not be the byelection candidate.
Thibeault, who won the byelection for the Liberals and took back the Sudbury riding that they lost to the New Democrats less than a year earlier, said he didn't know how much money Lougheed raised for his byelection campaign.
The rookie MPP also said he didn't think the criminal charges against Lougheed would turn people off of politics.
"People will judge politicians by the work that they do," he said. "I don't think there's anything tainting the work I'm doing for the people of Sudbury."
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