When Mayor Larry O'Brien walked-out of Ottawa City Hall on Friday he was freed from the yoke of leading Canada's fourth largest city and your nation's capital.
The Mayor and his political staff are on a nine week unpaid leave of absence as trial opens next week in Ontario Superior Court on charges stemming from allegations Mr. O'Brien attempted to bribe mayoral rival Terry Kilrea to drop-out of the 2006 election. Kilrea subsequently abandoned his challenge, ran instead as a city councillor and was roundly defeated.
Publicly, Mayor Larry O'Brien has always maintained his innocence. In meetings with the media during the week he spoke of his achievements since he was elected in October 2006 and about the charges of influence peddling he's facing..."Every inch of my life in business has been based on honesty and credibility, and I have brought that to politics." Mr. O'Brien is founder and chairman of Calian Ltd, a high-technology firm which has made him a millionaire and freed him to indulge his love of municipal politics. Permit me to digress - Sadly, his entrepreneurial skills have not translated well into municipal affairs. The learning curve has been long, slow, and arduous. If he were found guilty of the charges, Ontario Municipal Law would bar him for life from seeking elected office.
Although the Mayor's trial is scheduled to start this coming week, media sources are reporting that witnesses subpoenaed have been told they will not be called until at least the week starting on Monday, May 11. That's leading some to speculate that a deal may be in the works to avoid a trial altogether. The speculation was fueled further by an April 28 note to city council from the Mayor advising that his "Chief of Staff", Eric Lamoureux, was leaving City Hall to "pursue other opportunities" and would not be returning in July at the end of the unpaid leaves of absence.
The Mayor has always maintained his innocence, and he's told his council he is confident he will be returning to City Hall..."I am very proud of what we've accomplished together as a council to date and look forward to returning from my leave to prepare for the fall agenda".
But, it's believed there is mounting pressure from political operatives, particularly in federal Conservative Party ranks to nail-down a deal and perhaps avoid yet another public airing of the underbelly of politics. The Harper Conservatives went to considerable lengths to distance themselves from former Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, and the Oliphant Inquiry now underway in Ottawa. Several high profile Conservatives close to Mr. Harper are expected to testify at Mayor O'Brien's trial, including the Minister of Transport, John Baird, who was Treasury Board Chair when police allege Terry Kilrea was offered a seat on the National Parole Board if he stepped away from the mayoralty race. The Ontario Provincial Police investigation is said to have centered on a chance meeting between Mr(s) O'Brien and Baird at the upscale Hy's Steakhouse in Ottawa in August of 2006; two months before the municipal election.
Because of the public profile of some witnesses who have been subpoenaed, the trial is expected to attract national media attention. In fact one of the first orders of business when the Judge opens proceedings on Monday is to hear an application by the CBC to allow TV cameras in the courtroom; as well as applications by Canwest News Services, representing the "Ottawa Citizen" and "Global Television" to "blog" and to use Blackberry's in the courtroom.
Any deal struck before trial would surely oblige Mr. O'Brien to step-down from office and be barred from running again. Some wags say that might be a blessing for the city. Regardless, under the current circumstances few pundits predict that Mayor O'Brien would have an easy campaign should he run again in the next election scheduled for 16 months from now, in October 2010.