TORONTO —Ontario Energy Minister Chris Bentley moved one step closer to being found in contempt of parliament Tuesday after the opposition parties voted to send the issue to a legislative committee, which could recommend penalties, including jail time.
“This is a difficult day and it’s a difficult proceeding,” Bentley admitted minutes after the 53-50 vote in the legislature. “I make no bones about that.”
Debate on the contempt motion blocked all other business at the legislature for the past week, including the daily question periods, with the Progressive Conservatives taunting Bentley that a finding of contempt could land the former attorney general behind bars.
“Obviously that’s a very difficult thing to have to listen to,” he said.
The contempt motion was triggered by the government’s initial refusal to release documents on the cost of cancelling two power plants in Oakville and Mississauga.
The government always planned to release the documents, but was worried making them public too soon would hurt its negotiating position with the developer of the cancelled Oakville power plant, said Bentley.
“It was a question of whether sending them out before the negotiations were concluded or the arbitration proceedings were concluded would have an adverse effect on those discussions,” he said.
Once the Speaker ruled the data must be made public, the government released 36,000 pages of documents on the two cancelled energy projects, added Bentley.
The Tories and New Democrats ignored a last-minute appeal from Premier Dalton McGuinty not to vote for the contempt motion, which he said could have serious consequences for Bentley’s “career, his reputation, his life” if passed.
“It is wrong to use the full force of the legislature to attack the integrity and reputation of an honourable colleague,” McGuinty told reporters early Tuesday.
“I ask every member, look carefully into your own conscience in deciding a matter that will have profound personal consequences, and would represent a sad and dangerous departure from a tradition of respect and honour.”
There has to be some sanction for the government’s move to cancel two power plants, at a cost of at least $230 million, to save Liberal seats, said PC Leader Tim Hudak.
“They didn’t say sorry or apologize to taxpayers or their fellow MPPs,” said Hudak.
“Clearly they did wrong, they ripped off taxpayers, and they’re not even sorry about it.”
The New Democrats said all Tuesday’s vote did was send the contempt issue to an opposition-dominated committee, which will also take a deeper look into the costs of cancelling the energy projects in Oakville and Mississauga, which they estimate to be as high as $650 million.
McGuinty’s emotional appeal was really aimed at preventing the gas plant issue from being the subject of the committee’s hearings, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“The committee has an opportunity to review documents, to call for other documents that they feel might be missing (and) to call witnesses, and the government and the premier are trying to avoid that as much as possible and turn this into something that it’s not,” she said.
“It will be up to the committee to decide whether or not contempt has taken place and what the remedy might be for that.”
McGuinty also tried to shelve the contempt motion and send only the issue of the gas plants to committee, but the opposition parties blocked the procedural move.
The Tories and NDP have been anxious to get the issue to committee, where they can call witnesses, including Bentley, before making a recommendation next month.
Only a vote of the full legislature could find Bentley in contempt.
The Conservatives crossed a line during the week-long debate when they taunted Bentley by saying a finding of contempt would kill his legal career, said McGuinty.
“The threats against him include expulsion from the Law Society of Upper Canada, public shaming, and one Opposition house leader stated: ‘this House has many of the same powers of punishment and we will be pursuing each and every one of those powers,”’ he said.
“Just as it would be wrong for a majority government to use its heavy hand in this way to attack an opposition MPP, so it is wrong for a majority opposition to use its heavy hand in this way to attack a member of a government.”