The price of ‘open season’ on politicians

By Steve Paikin - Published on October 25, 2017
Pat Sorbara and Gerry Lougheed
Liberals Patrica Sorbara (left) and Gerry Lougheed Jr., had charges against them thrown out of court by a judge Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

​If you only want to read columns that excoriate politicians for their bad behaviour, then this one isn’t for you. No, this column will express sympathy for those politicians who find themselves at the sharp end of injustice.

I’m writing this piece because, yet again, a judge has dismissed charges brought against politically involved citizens, throwing the case out of court even before a defence needed to be called.

I’m referring, of course, to the developments in Sudbury, where an influential local fundraiser and Premier Kathleen Wynne’s one-time deputy chief of staff were charged under the Election Act for allegedly offering an inducement to have an potential candidate for a Liberal nomination step aside.

You didn’t have to be a legal expert to realize, after the Crown had made its case, that there simply wasn’t much there. Then, yesterday, someone who was a legal expert — namely, Howard Borenstein, the judge in the case — agreed and threw out the charges.

Fine, you might say. Justice has been done. No harm, no foul. Except that much harm has been done.

Patricia Sorbara and Gerry Lougheed Jr. have had their reputations sullied in the media over the past several months. So has Sudbury MPP Glenn Thibeault, who was never even charged. Beyond that, Sorbara and Lougheed Jr. also faced the prospect of $25,000 fines and jail time. The whole sad episode is reminiscent of president Ronald Reagan’s former labor secretary Raymond Donovan, who after being acquitted of fraud and larceny charges in 1987 famously said: “Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?”

Sadly, this is not the first time people involved in Ontario politics have been unfairly tried. In fact, Patricia Sorbara isn’t even the first person named “Sorbara” to have been put through the ringer.


Twelve years ago, an overzealous investigation by the RCMP resulted in finance minister Greg Sorbara’s name appearing in a search warrant. (Pat Sorbara is Greg’s second cousin.) The police were looking into the dealings of a company where he had previously been a director. The minister immediately resigned his post, the government of the day was deeply shaken, and Sorbara then spent six figures fighting the case.

Ultimately, Sorbara didn’t have to face his accusers in court. A judge ruled there was no basis for including his name in the warrant, and so the case against him evaporated. But it cost him six months of his life, and the presumption of innocence that all citizens enjoy, as his life was turned upside down.

A similar travesty happened nearly three decades ago, when former Hamilton East MP John Munro was charged with more than 30 counts of fraud, corruption, and other offences, dating from his time as a cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau’s government. In 1991, the charges were dropped. But the toll on Munro was awful. He told me years later he even considered suicide, so destroyed did he feel by the entire escapade. He lost many political “friends”— who are, of course, prepared to believe the worst of anyone associated with politics. And the legal bills practically bankrupted him.

There’s no verifiable reason why authorities occasionally bring forward charges so weak that they’re eventually tossed aside. My best guess is, in an effort to look as if they’re not playing favourites with the powerful, these authorities level charges against some influential people, even though the charges may be based on pretty flimsy evidence.   

It may give some members of the public and some political opponents a temporary thrill to see people in high places knocked down a peg or two.

But it’s unfair to those involved, and even worse, it will surely contribute to dissuading good people from entering public life, knowing their reputations could be sullied by incompetent or overzealous law enforcement authorities.