In Ottawa, all politics is federal: Liveblogging the Larry O'Brien trial for a day - Macleans.ca

In Ottawa, all politics is federal: Liveblogging the Larry O’Brien trial for a day

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Up til now, ITQ had been able to resist the siren song of the Larry O’Brien trial. But with so many Hill staffers — and the occasional minister — turning up on the witness list, not to mention the historic ruling by the judge to allow journalists to liveblog and twitter from the courtroom — it was inevitable that she would eventually be lured into the maw. Anyway, with PMO appointments czar Dave Penner slated to testify this afternoon, it turns out that today’s the day that ITQ goes hyperlocal.

Also scheduled to testify today: local Conservative fundraiser Thom Bennett and Nepean-Carleton Progressive Conservative MP Lisa MacLeod. The action gets underway at 10am today, so check back for full liveblogging coverage, ITQ-style, although I should note that I’m not sure whether I’ll inflict minute-by-minute updates of the voir dire arguments on my unsuspecting readers. I’m not a monster, after all. But be sure to check out Hot Room Colleague Glen McGregor’s twitter feed, too, since he’ll have no such compunction

Oh, and if you haven’t been following our made-for-a-cheap-Canadian-knockoff-of-Law-and-Order political melodrama, drop by the Ottawa Citizen and CBC Ottawa for all the background info. (Note: Links shamelessly plundered from ZeroMeansZero, Ottawa’s one-stop shop for scurrilous and unsubstantiated gossip about City Hall, which, more often than not, turns out to be pretty much dead on accurate.)

Good morning, local city governance enthusiasts and/or fans of PMO appointment overlord Dave Penner!

This is ITQ reporting live from a surprisingly sparsely populated Courtroom 36, which is tucked away on the third floor of the historic Ottawa courthouse. I’ve staked out a prime viewing spot at the very back of the room – which is, I guess, the officially designated renegade realtime media section – beside the already-linked Colleague McGregor, who is tapping away furiously on his Mac.

Also on the scene when ITQ arrived was the Oliphant-flashback-inducing Barry McLoughlin, who is handling media relations for the mayor. Who, incidentally, is here too – the mayor, that is. He nodded vaguely but benevolently in our direction while striding to his reserved-sign demarked seat.

I’m not sure whether this court – which is presided over by Judge Cunningham, for future reference. – is run on the same to-the-second timeline as the inquiry — by my watch (or, in this case, timestamp), it seems like we should have started already. I’ll keep you posted, tho. Gosh, this is already more fun than hanging around the caucus room.
10:02:06 AM
Okay, so apparently, the judge has been “delayed”, hence the lack of all-rising. I hope this is a regular occurence, or I might start to worry that ITQ’s very presence in a courtroom augurs misfortune for the judge. There was that knee incident with Oliphant, after all.

10:06:02 AM
And – here we go!

Scott Hutchison – and thanks to Colleague M for the spelling – seems to be playing the role of Richard Wolson, Expositionizer General; he introduces the next witness, Thom Bennett, who is sworn in as part of the voire dire; he is a local, and he works in insurance – but he’s also involved in politics. Hey, he’s Claude Bennett’s brother. Small world, huh? Anyway, he tells the court that when he sees candidates – Conservative candidates, that is – and he likes what he sees, he helps out with a little fundraising. So – he’s a bagman, basically. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

10:10:59 AM
Hutchinson leads Bennett gently through his storied history as a local fundraiser to his encounter with Greg Strong – who was on the stand yesterday – who tried to get him to wave the blue bucket on behalf of O’Brien, but he demurred, because really, city politics? Ick. He did recommend one of Pierre Poilievre’s staffers, John Light – who was *also* on the stand yesterday – as a potential campaign manager for O’Brien, but it doesn’t sound like Light was all that keen on the prospect, at least initially, due to small- and big-C votesplitting between O’Brien and Terry Kilrea. As far as Light was concerned, as long as Terry was in the race, they couldn’t win.

Bennett notes that he didn’t hear anything about Light being involved in any other local campaign, although he could have been, and notes that Strong was present during the conversation.

(I think, but I’m not positive, that this contradicts Strong’s version of events.)
10:16:05 AM
Bennett isn’t sure how he found out about the alleged parole board appointment – he doesn’t recall if Strong told him about it, or if he “read about it in the newspaper”; O’Brien’s lawyer gets a bit grumbly on that point, and Hutchinson moves on. I wish we made MPs wear robes. Anyway, that was pretty much the end of his involvement in the O’Brien imbroglio in the making.

Oh, Hutchinson goes back for one more clarifier on the appointment: Does he remember if he read about it in the newspaper before or after the conversation with Light and Strong (who really ought to join forces in some sort of partnership – maybe sports marketing – if only for the name alone)

10:19:36 AM
That’s it for the crown, now it’s Michael Edelson at the mic. He gets Bennett to admit that he never met Kilrea, and goes over some of his comments on the campaign so far — at that point, at least — in which he saw Kilrea not only not leading, but “going backwards”. Bennett also apparently told someone – it’s not clear if this is from his police interview – that he may have been “polluted by the press” — not in the creepy way, but simply that he just doesn’t know whether he had already read or heard about the appointment through media reports.

10:23:50 AM
Eventually, Edelson achieves what has to have been his primary goal for this cross-examination – he gets Bennett to acknowledge that, however he may have initially found out about the appointment, it wasn’t from Larry O’Brien. That brings him to an end as far as questions, and since the Crown declines to re-examine, the judge asks a few of his own — mostly about the logistics of the conversation — where was Strong? Where was Light? — and wonders what he thought Strong meant when he told Light that Kilrea was “done”.

And – that’s it for the witnesses, onto the voir dire arguments, which involves the Crown trying to convince the judge to allow the admission of the testimony from Light, Strong and Bennett, which the defence – Team O’Brien – insists is hearsay.

As promised, I’m not going to chronicle every nuance of the respective arguments, but if anything strikes me as particularly interesting, I’ll let you know — and I’ll keep you posted on the ETA for Lisa MacLeod and Dave Penner, who should, if all goes according to schedule, be hitting the docket sometime around noon.

10:34:50 AM
I *do* like being able to read the twitterfeed over the shoulder of the twitter-er, however. So much more convenient than scrolling through Twitterberry.

Incidentally, the Crown is making what seems to ITQ to be a pretty good argument as to why Light’s testimony – a credible witness, he keeps noting – should be allowed in; he takes issue at being accused of attempting to “pirate” evidence, although you can tell he’s a teeny bit stoked, because recent news coverage aside, “pirate” has a distinctly cooler ring than “local crown attorney”. Anyway, this isn’t piracy; it’s a perfectly reasonable argument, and since this case is being tried by judge alone, it shouldn’t needlessly harm the defence for this evidence to be received.

10:42:28 AM
The judge points out that *none* of this “chatter” connects any of this “stuff” to O’Brien — it was just “a bunch of political types” trying to figure out what would happen with Terry Kilrea. He’s not from around here, is he? Take out the reference to Kilrea, and he’s basically summed up 90% of the what happens in this town. Anyway, he seems sceptical that any of this is relevant to the case at hand.

10:50:45 AM
The defence gets its chance to convince the judge to throw out all that hearsay, which, Edelson claims, has no relevance unless the speakers knew that the statements were true. There’s more griping about circumstantial evidence, and over the Crown initially submitting these witnesses’ stories to set the “narrative”.

Consistent statements, he notes, do not necessarily equate to truth, which will not come as an epiphany to any of us who sat through the Oliphant inquiry. The judge points out that the *Crown* is putting forward these statements as corroboration of Kilrea’s claim, so it doesn’t matter if they’re true, but Edelson insists that it’s all irrelevant; after July 18th, he notes, all of this was moot. The judge assures him that he doesn’t see this as “narrative”, since there are gaps, which means that the Crown is going to have to come up with some other reason to allow them in. On a side note, one of the more frustrating aspects of covering legal proceedings is how often it forces prepositions to be cruelly left dangling.

11:05:55 AM
Update on Lisa MacLeod: Apparently, she’ll be here for 11:30. Hurray! I bet that means we’re going to have a midmorning health break.

And – I’m right. See you back here in 20-25 minutes for the next round.

11:20:42 AM
Oh, this is just too Ottawa — one of the Members of the Public who has turned up at the O’Brien trial is a former regular at Old City Hall. We just had a heartwarming reunion outside the courtroom – he called me Tiny Fingers, I tried not to develop a complex. In other news, there is some confusion over exactly when Lisa MacLeod will testify; someone said that she wouldn’t be available til noon, but unless I’m very much mistaken, she just swept into the courthouse, smiling furiously and kissing every cheek in sight.

11:54:28 AM
And we’re back — yes, a little bit later than expected; not sure what all that was about — and Lisa MacLeod is being sworn in just off mic. Her middle name is Anne with an E, in case anyone wondered. She tells Hutchinson that she’s lived in Nepean for five years – in the Ottawa environs for ten years – and used to be Pierre Poilievre’s executive assistant. Are any of his former staffers *not* on the list of potential witnesses?

Anyway, she confirms that she knows Terry Kilrea — he is “a public figure in Ottawa — as well as the condo at 700 Sussex. In fact, she saw Kilrea there “from a distance” on July 12, 2006.

11:57:31 AM
Okay, now this is *really* starting to feel reminiscent of the Oliphant days; MacLeod’s calendar for the week in question has been submitted into evidence — there is much mild courtroom merriment over her reason for being within eyeshot of Kilrea on that fateful day; apparently she was having her hair done at Holtz Spa.

Anyway, back to O’Brien, who – as per MacLeod and backed up by her calendar – she met him for the first time on July 31, after reading an Ottawa Citizen article by Randall Denley — who is sitting beside me, by the way — that suggested he might enter the race; she was “excited” by the possibility that a C/conservative might enter the race. The two discussed some of O’Brien’s potential campaign workers, including Heather Tessier – the mayor’s niece, also a Poilievre office alum – and the shadowy Tim Tierney, formerly Kilrea’s webmaster, whose name weaves in and out of this tale like an ethernet cord. She heard something about an appointment for Kilrea, but doesn’t remember who brought it up; she was too busy being “excited” by the “breath of fresh air” that was O’Brien.

12:05:01 PM
According to MacLeod, the reference to a possible appointment came up “casually”, and believes that the parole board was mentioned; she believes that O’Brien said that they were “talking” to Kilrea about it. That doesn’t seem all that helpful for Team Mayor, does it? That was the extent of the discussion, really, as far as she can recall; she was more focused on the potential O’Brien campaign, although she notes that in a situation like this, with two potential candidates, you always think about the effect that it might have on the other one.

That’s it for the main examination — I know, so short — and Edelson takes the floor; he wants to know about the meeting MacLeod had a few weeks back to review her statement, which she confirms. That she had a meeting, that is.

What he really wants to do, however, is “go over what was happening in her life” at that point – July 2006, I assume – she had just been elected to the Ontario legislature, she had a “young child”, her husband – Joe Varner, who also figures into the O’Brien Who’sWho – and her father became ill around the same time that she made her initial statement to police. (There is a weird tangent that seems to involve MacLeod being “stalked” via phone, email and Facebook by an Ottawa Citizen reporter, but I’m not sure what the provenance is of *that* subplot.)

12:13:09 PM
Edelson wonders if MacLeod met with *all* the potential mayoral candidates — apparently, she had a big open house at her constituency office, which was attended by both Bob Chiarelli *and* Alex Munter. What about one-on-one? Well, there were policy-related meetings with Chiarelli about a park in her riding, and Munter showed up at a barbecue for volunteers, but other than that, it doesn’t sound like it.

12:15:05 PM
Other names put forward during the O’Brien campaign dream team brainstorming: John Light, Chris Frogatt – now a staffer for John Baird – Mike McNeil, and her husband, Joe Varner. That’s what they talked about at the meeting, mostly — organization.

In that initial interview, Edelson notes, MacLeod was questioned about the appointment, but told the police that – oh, retro-shoutout to Doug Finley in the interview transcript – anyway, she said she’d heard it from Larry, but wasn’t sure if *he* was talking to Terry. Yay, rhyming! Anyway, she heard Finley’s name “through the rumour mill” — not from O’Brien.

12:20:25 PM
MacLeod agrees, somewhat demurely, that she has indeed heard “from time to time” that the political rumour mill is constantly churning.

Edelson notes that, in her initial testimony, MacLeod admitted that she recalled *someone* talking about the appointment, but not exactly who that was. I get the sense that he’s doing his best to suggest that she, too, may have been unwittingly “polluted” by the media coverage – her initial recollection of the conversation was less detailed than what eventually came out during the formal interview. “You had no reason to store this in your memory banks at this point,” he suggests – but MacLeod points out that she *was* meeting with the potential next mayor of Ottawa. She didn’t ask him to clarify what he was talking about — they just got right back to discussing organizational details. Edelson goes through a list of all the things she *didn’t* know — that Kilrea had initiated discussions, that he was “working on this”, that this was “a discussion that had taken place in the past, and was done”, which seems a bridge — or at least, a plank – too far. “I don’t know,” MacLeod tells him, with a hint of uncertainty in her voice.

12:28:19 PM
(Colleague McGregor to me just now: “You came on a good day.” Whee! )

Anyway, MacLeod has *finally* been given a copy of her statement — it seems like that should have happened at the start — and Edelson again puts forward *his* theory, which is that this could have been O’Brien relating “a narrative of past events,” to which she replies, somewhat cooly, “You’ll have to ask him.” Except since he’s not planning on testifying, I guess he can’t do that, can he?

12:32:28 PM
Edelson wanders over to the docket to hand MacLeod a new exhibit — “Triple Y” — which dates from August 5, 2006, soon after her husband – Varner – “came on board” with O’Brien. The exhibit, it turns out, is a news article (or a collection of news articles, it’s not clear), many of which speculate as to Kilrea’s imminent exit from the race. He recaps the contents of the article in question, in which Varner denies there was any effort to get Kilrea to leave the race, and notes that there was nothing that tied the two together in the discussion she claims to have had with O’Brien.

Also, she can’t confirm the presence of anyone *but* Kilrea at 700 Sussex on July 12th, and even noted at the time that she found it “weird” that he was there, since he “wasn’t really a downtown guy.” (O’Brien, of course, lived – and, as far as ITQ knows, still lives upstairs.)

12:37:46 PM
Edelson asks if MacLeod describes herself as a “political junkie”, but she prefers “loves community work”. Oh, honey, just admit it. You’re not alone out there — or even alone in this room. Gabba gabba, we accept you etc.

Anyway, MacLeod denies that she followed the O’Brien case closely the following year — she was mainly focused on her own political career at the time — she’d just been elected in March, after all — and it wasn’t until she got a “warning call” that her statement could go public that she realized this might end with a trial. As it did, much to the surprise of all concerned, really. Also, her father was sick, so she was thinking about that – and her daughter – more than what was going on with the O’Brien case.

12:43:11 PM
Edelson wraps up his cross-examination there, and Hutchinson takes the opportunity to do a little clean up work — not that his witness made much of a mess, really — mostly to do with the presence or absence of David Gibbons at that initial meeting with O’Brien, and whether he was there when the comments were allegedly made.

That’s it for Lisa MacLeod, it turns out – after being excused by the judge, she and her entourage hustle out of the courtroom, and Edelson pops up to put his objection on the record over how the main examination was conducted; specifically, eliciting the reference to the parole board from the witness. Hutchinson is unapologetic – well, he does allow there may have been a slip – and the judge looks impassive.

12:46:55 PM
Oh, turns out that we’re going to get the judge’s ruling on the Light/Strong/Bennett testimony before we break for lunch. Hurray!

And — huh. That’s a bit of a surprise, at least to ITQ — the judge rules in favour of Hutchinson, which means the testimony is admissable. He reminds the parties that, since this case is being tried by judge alone, it’s up to him to decide how much weight to put upon it, and furthermore, all three witnesses have, and will be, “fully cross-examined”, who had best be alerted that they may be recalled.

Edelson leaps up to tell the court that *he* doesn’t need to reexamine anyone, but Hutchinson wants the lunch break to decide. Ooh, suspense.

Anyway, that’s it for the morning session — I’ll see you back here at 2:15 for Dave Penner.

Well, I know *one* other person who seems to be looking forward to the imminent appearance on the stand of PMO appointments director Dave Penner: A (Deputy) Senior Government Spokesman, who has arrived at Courtroom 36 to a warm welcome from those of us media types who normally make their home on the Hill. I figured they’d almost certainly send *someone* along to monitor developments in case of some sort of meltdown — which nobody is expecting, by the way; honestly, if he ends up spending more than an hour on the stand, it would be more than surprising enough. Anyway, the witness is here as well — far be it from me to compete with Colleague McG on the movie casting — and – hey, so is the judge. Off to the races we go!

2:16:04 PM
PMO Trivia Note: Dave Penner’s middle name is “Rolf”.

Having been sworn in, a new, female Crown attorney – whose name, sadly, I didn’t catch – takes over the examination; she seems a little bit nervous, perhaps because – as she tells the court before beginning – a lawyer from Justice is on the scene in case any cabinet confidentiality issues arise.

She gets Penner to give his background – he was an advisor to the chief of staff of the then-leader of opposition Stephen Harper until the Great Government Overtaking of Aught Six, when he took up his current post as gatekeeper of the now-firmly-merit-based-they-promise appointment process, which includes, under its aegis, the National Parole Board.

2:19:45 PM
At the time, the relevant minister – relevant to the National Parole Board, that is – was Stockwell Day; Penner outlines how a name goes from his office to the board, and tries to make it sound like it has nothing whatsoever to do with Who One Knows In The PMO. The Crown – whose name may or may not be “Woods” – asks him about regional political ministers, and Penner notes that in cases where a cv arrives, they may send it along to that minister, who can then provide whatever background they might have on the individual in question.

The regional minister for Ontario at the time, of course, was John Baird.
A brief tangent into the background and structure of the National Parole Board, which is every bit as thrilling as it sounds – a typical term lasts five years for a full time position, three years for part time, and the salary is — at this point, Penner wants to check his notes, which – after a little housekeeping and pro forma no-objection seeking – he does: the remuneration range for fulltime is between $115 and 134,000 a year; part time, however, pays on a per diem rate.

2:25:27 PM
The Crown asks about qualifications for a parole board slot, which seems to momentarily puzzle Penner; he notes that the board came up with its own list – secondary school diploma, someone who has been involved in “the decision-making environment”, with an ability to interpret court decisions and some knowledge of the criminal justice system.

The crown wonders: Were there any Ontario vacancies on the board in August 2006? Apparently, that’s a trickier question to answer than you’d think; there was one in March, and no appointments before August; according to Penner, that means there was *probably* one spot available, although he doesn’t seem positive.

2:29:16 PM
John Reynolds shoutout! Penner is asked if he knows the man – yes, he does, “through politics” – but by 2006, he played no role in government; while he *has* forwarded Penner “several cvs” of individuals who he believed qualified for an appointment. Annoyingly, she doesn’t ask how many of those turned out to be successful, as far as landing a spot, but Terry Kilrea’s cv was not among them, according to Penner. As far as he knows, his office was not contacted about Terry Kilrea.

2:25:27 PM
The Crown asks about qualifications for a parole board slot, which seems to momentarily puzzle Penner; he notes that the board came up with its own list – secondary school diploma, someone who has been involved in “the decision-making environment”, with an ability to interpret court decisions and some knowledge of the criminal justice system.

The crown wonders: Were there any Ontario vacancies on the board in August 2006? Apparently, that’s a trickier question to answer than you’d think; there was one in March, and no appointments before August; according to Penner, that means there was *probably* one spot available, although he doesn’t seem positive.

2:29:16 PM
John Reynolds shoutout! Penner is asked if he knows the man – yes, he does, “through politics” – but by 2006, he played no role in government; while he *has* forwarded Penner “several cvs” of individuals who he believed qualified for an appointment. Annoyingly, she doesn’t ask how many of those turned out to be successful, as far as landing a spot, but Terry Kilrea’s cv was not among them, according to Penner. As far as he knows, his office was not contacted about Terry Kilrea.

2:36:30 PM
“It takes some time to get through a background check in government these days,” Edelson asserts with charming confidence. After “paring down” the list, Penner’s office would receive the final list of names, he confirms, and then eventually – I’m cutting to the chase here, by the way – the prime minister recommends the appointment to Her Excellency, and, if in agreement, she appoints them to the parole board.

Edelson – who has read the fine print related to GiC appointments within an inch of its life – notes that another qualification for parole board hopefuls is familiarity with aboriginal issues; there is, he notes, a large population of aboriginal people in Canadian prisons. Penner, the unfortunate possible headlines to come out of this no doubt flashing before his eyes, nonetheless sort of agrees: “I guess.”

Then there’s an amusing-to-us-Hill-reporters exchange between Penner and Edelson over the Canada Gazette, and how some appointments aren’t even advertised — no, really! — before a baffling side trip into the nearly limitless possibilities of *part time* appointments.

2:42:47 PM
All this fascinating information about GiC appointments, by the way, can be found on the government’s dedicated website, Edelson points out — so anyone who spent any time at all reading up on the rigourous process involved would know instantly that if they hadn’t put in a resume, they weren’t going to be getting an appointment.

2:44:06 PM
Back to John Reynolds — I know, ITQ is delighted, too — and whether he ever sent along a cv from someone in *Ontatio*, which Penner can’t recall having happened. Also, Edelson avers, and Penner confirms, after sending in a resume, Reynolds wouldn’t do anything else, as far as lobbying on their behalf; he’d forward the cv, send along an email, Penner would thank him, and that was the end of it. On top of all that, he never sent in Kilrea’s cv.

2:48:58 PM
Eventually, Edelson finally moves on from the GiC appointment process – well, sort of – to ask whether it’s fair to say that there are very few federal appointments for which the only information needed is a candidate’s name and address. Which it is. Also, even if you make it through the entire process with flying colours, a ‘reserve’ can still be put on the name of an otherwise unassailable candidate by a cabinet minister; ultimately, Penner says, these appointments are approved by cabinet. “Unanimously?” Edelson, the adorably naïve, wonders; both he and Penner are saved from the latter having to answer the question by the Justice department lawyer, who doesn’t even have to make an objection, because Edelson withdraws his question.

Also, according to a note that Edelson has just received – from who? We don’t know – the very first Ontario vacancy on the board to be advertised was in December 2006.

And — that’s it for Dave Penner, and for today’s witness list; the crown tells the judge that he doesn’t need to hear from the other three witness – Light/Strong/Bennett.

Wow, this judge is from Winnipeg, too. I wonder if he knows Oliphant?

Anyway, the crown tells the court that he may wrap up his case next week, and that’s all for the moment — we’re released. Aw, man, does that mean I have to go back to the Hill?

See you in a bit, in any case.