Ontario PC leader says he will ignore premier's threat of defamation lawsuit

Ontario PC leader says he will ignore premier's threat of defamation lawsuit

TORONTO — Ontario's Opposition leader plans to ignore a libel notice from Premier Kathleen Wynne, prolonging a legal spat between the two political rivals months away from a provincial  election.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown suggested in a statement Monday that Wynne's threat is merely a "cynical attempt" to distract the public from Liberal scandals.

"Baseless attempts to silence Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition will be ignored, full stop," Brown wrote.

Wynne took another step toward a defamation lawsuit against Brown last week after he refused to retract comments suggesting she is personally on trial.

Her lawyer first demanded in a letter last month that Brown withdraw comments he made a day before the premier testified as a witness at a trial in Sudbury, Ont., involving two provincial Liberals facing Election Act bribery charges.

Brown had told reporters he hoped Wynne would give answers about the scandal "maybe when she stands trial" and went on to describe her as a "sitting premier, sitting in trial."

After receiving the original letter from Wynne's lawyer, Brown would not retract his comments or apologize for them and now after receiving the follow-up notice of libel, his position is unchanged. Brown's comments were not defamatory, his lawyer, Jonathan Lisus, wrote to Wynne's legal team.

"Mr. Brown's remarks were fair comment on your client's calculated decision to publicly involve herself in the bribery trial of her former deputy chief of staff and a Liberal fundraiser," Lisus wrote Monday.

"It is regrettable that the premier's response to discussion of this government's ethical record is to consume Ontario's scarce judicial resources through libel actions."

If Wynne intends on following through with her legal threat, lawyers on both sides should agree to an expedited timetable to get a lawsuit to a public hearing "as soon as possible," Lisus wrote.

Ontario's general election is set for June 7, 2018.

Wynne's lawyers also warned Brown that he must preserve all relevant documents, because if Wynne proceeds with a lawsuit he will be required to disclose them all. Brown's lawyer called that "the height of irony" given that two former Liberal staffers — from ex-premier Dalton McGuinty's office — are currently on trial over allegedly deleted documents.

"This letter shall serve as notice that your client, her advisers, the Liberal government and the Liberal party must preserve all of their communications and records, emails and text messages about the two trials, including your client's decision to selectively waive privilege and testify in Sudbury," Lisus wrote.

Wynne's lawyers have also threatened that comments Brown made when defending his decision not to retract or apologize constitute another defamation.

Brown had said it was a "sad day for Ontario" to see the premier "debased" and "humiliated" by testifying in court.

Wynne's lawyers said Brown's status as leader of the Progressive Conservatives increased the likelihood that his statements would be repeated by others, therefore "increasing the potential harm to the premier's reputation."

The "stubborn refusal" to retract the comments has put Brown on the hook for potential aggravated and punitive damages, they wrote in the libel notice.

Wynne previously sued former Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and another Tory member of provincial parliament after the pair said she oversaw — and possibly ordered — the destruction of documents related to two cancelled gas plants. Those are the allegations for which the two McGuinty-era staffers are currently on trial.

That lawsuit was resolved in 2015, though it is not known whether it was settled or withdrawn.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press