OTTAWA – The Crown will wrap up its influence-peddling case against Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien this week in what has been a fascinating peek behind the capital’s political curtain.
The trial centres on a federal appointment allegedly dangled by O’Brien to entice fellow right-of-centre mayoral candidate Terry Kilrea to leave the 2006 municipal race.
As such, the storyline to date reads like a bare-knuckle, bush-league version of the cloak-and-dagger game more often played in the shadow of the Peace Tower.
“I’m a novice in the politics game,” the court heard O’Brien telling police in his videotaped interview from 2007.
“The real rookie mistake was me even talking to this guy (Kilrea) because I had the feeling at some point that there was a bit of baiting going on.”
Just who was being baited and who was doing the fishing must be sorted out by Judge Douglas Cunningham, the associate chief justice of Ontario Superior Court.
To that end, the testimony so far has not been uniformly illuminating.
“I can say the Conservative party of Ontario and Canada doesn’t get involved in municipal elections,” influential Tory cabinet minister John Baird testified, under oath, at O’Brien’s trial last week.
It was just one of a daily litany of counter-intuitive statements to fog the Elgin Street courthouse, just five blocks from Parliament Hill.
The Conservative party may not have involved itself in Ottawa’s 2006 mayoral race, but federal Conservative players were everywhere.
The trial will hear Monday from the party’s former chief pollster, Dimitri Pantazopoulos, who Kilrea alleges served as a go-between.
That testimony will be followed on Tuesday by John Reynolds, a former interim party leader and the campaign co-chair of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2006 ascent to power.
Kilrea alleges that O’Brien name-dropped Reynolds in suggesting he could engineer an appointment to the National Parole Board. O’Brien, meanwhile, told police it was Reynolds who advised him any such appointment offer would be illegal – causing the very notion to die within hours of Kilrea raising it.
Reynolds, if he holds true to his public statements of March 2007, will testify he made no recommendation to anyone of an appointment for Kilrea – but that he very well might have, if O’Brien had ever asked.
“If Larry said to him, ‘Hey, I can talk to John Reynolds and put your name in,’ that would be a fair statement, a fair thing to do,” Reynolds told The Canadian Press at the time.
“But I never did (forward Kilrea’s name), so I doubt that he asked me. I would have done it.”
Finally, the prosecution case is expected to wrap up Wednesday and will likely conclude with evidence from Heather Tessier – the personal embodiment of this trial’s Tory entanglements.
Tessier, O’Brien’s niece, was one of Kilrea’s key campaign workers. She’s also the former assistant to local Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, who currently serves as Harper’s parliamentary secretary.
What is not in dispute at the trial is that prominent local Tories Baird and Poilievre initially backed Kilrea’s mayoral ambitions, agreeing to help him raise funds and appearing at Kilrea community events.
There’s also little dispute that when O’Brien, a high-tech millionaire, decided to throw his hat in the ring, he was considered a superior right-wing candidate.
Lisa MacLeod, the Ontario MPP who previously worked for both Baird and Poilievre, called O’Brien “just a breath of fresh air” in testimony at trial.
O’Brien himself described Kilrea to police as “a bit of a buffoon” – a point O’Brien’s defence lawyer assiduously explored during days of wince-worthy cross-examination.
One question left unasked at the trial is why such savvy politicos as Baird and Poilievre ever backed Kilrea for mayor of Canada’s fourth largest city. Baird, after all, testified at trial that Kilrea simply wasn’t up to a parole board job.