Judge allows instant news from O'Brien court trial despite political danger

OTTAWA - Sensitive cabinet confidences of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government could "inadvertently" be exposed during the influence-peddling trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien, the Crown said Monday during legal haggling over media access.

OTTAWA - Sensitive cabinet confidences of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government could "inadvertently" be exposed during the influence-peddling trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien, the Crown said Monday during legal haggling over media access.

It was a small sneak preview of the potentially politically explosive evidence that could come to light when the trial gets underway in earnest next week.

Judge Douglas Cunningham, the associate chief justice of Ontario's Superior court, began the O'Brien trial by ruling that TV cameras feeding live to the Internet would not be permitted in his courtroom - but that the public and media in attendance can live-blog the proceedings in real time.

The judge had been cautioned by both Crown prosecutor Scott Hutchison and O'Brien's defence lawyer about sensitive, confidential or inadmissable evidence being blogged instantly onto the web before the judge could rule against such public disclosure.

Hutchison said Harper's director of appointments, Dave Penner, would be called by the prosecution to explain the Conservative government's appointment process, and that cabinet confidences could "inadvertently" be exposed.

"The problem with instantaneous world-wide distribution is that the genie cannot be put back in the bottle," said Hutchison.

Cunningham shot down the CBC's bid to have cameras follow the trial in real time, but agreed to a bid by Canwest News Service to have a reporter file instantly to a popular social networking site from within the courtroom. The judge's ruling effectively opens the gates to all media at O'Brien's trial to file real-time text stories by wireless device.

No pictures or sound may be broadcast from the courtroom.

"What we are talking about here is instant text transmission to the blogosphere, but that is the world in which we live," said Cunningham.

He noted the worries that were raised during Monday's hearing, "but most significantly the genie-in-the-bottle concern that has been registered."

"I ... recognize that some private information or protected information could inappropriately be disclosed," said the judge.

"But I'm afraid that's a risk I'll have to take, recognizing as I do the calibre of counsel I have before me in this case."

O'Brien was formally arraigned Monday on two Criminal Code counts for allegedly trying to induce a rival candidate to drop out of the 2006 mayoral race.

The alleged inducement was a five-year appointment to the National Parole Board, which rival mayoral candidate Terry Kilrea claims was to be facilitated through Conservative cabinet minister John Baird.

Baird emphatically denies the allegation.

During the course of a nine-month police investigation, the names of other high-profile Conservatives came to light, including John Reynolds, Harper's campaign chair in 2006, and Doug Finley, the party's powerful director of political operations.

Penner, an intimate plugged into the Prime Minister's Office, had not been previously named in public as a potential witness.

O'Brien has taken a leave of absence from his mayoral duties for the trial.

If convicted he could face up to five years in prison and removal from office.

Hearings will continue Tuesday with a discussion of hearsay evidence anticipated during the trial, which gets underway proper next Monday with opening statements.

 
 
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