The stakes in Mayor Larry O’Brien’s trial for attempted bribery and purported influence peddling — his job and liberty, the integrity of our electoral system — are considerable, but there’s no denying the entertainment value.
It’s a rare treat to watch politicians under oath, their professional powers of obfuscation severely limited but not entirely lost, as we saw in Bill Clinton’s famous dance around the meaning of “is.”
Questions of protocol present themselves: If O’Brien calls Judge J. Douglas Cunningham “Your Honour,” as he did when entering a not guilty plea this week, should the judge in turn refer to him as “Your Worship?”
The allegations, that O’Brien offered mayoral rival Terry Kilrea inducements to drop out of the 2006 election, compare rather weakly to other tales of mayoral malfeasance.
They might wonder what all the O’Brien fuss is about in Detroit, where Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned last fall and went to jail after pleading guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and no contest to one count of assault. The entire mess stemmed from the mayor’s extramarital affair with his chief of staff.
It’s probably fairer to measure the O’Brien case against past Ottawa mayors behaving badly, whose stories can be found in Dave Mullington’s Chain of Office: Biographical Sketches of the Early Mayors of Ottawa.
How will Larry stack up, for example, against McLeod Stewart, whose 1888 mayoral victory was voided in court when one of his campaign workers was found to have bribed voters? Or how about G.B.L. Fellowes, elected mayor in 1876, and subsequently charged with 11 offences, including ballot-stuffing? Fellowes, a serial cheat who had already spent time in jail for electoral fraud, died of a stroke on the day his trial was to begin.
The O’Brien trial, meanwhile, has yet to produce much drama, but still the curious have come out to watch the show. While media lawyers argued for cameras and live-blogging in the courtroom, a spectator friend of mine was getting an abrupt education on restrictions at the Elgin Street courthouse itself.
She’d dropped by to take in the historic scene, and brought along a disposable camera, which was immediately confiscated when she snapped a picture outside the courtroom, a no-no, but hardly one familiar to the general public.
Rules were explained, apologies made, and discussions are ongoing about the recovery of the offending camera, which in addition to a possible contraband shot of the back of Mr. O’Brien’s head, includes old pictures of the shutterbug’s much-loved cat Sammy, now deceased.
So far, the trial of the century this ain’t.