The judge isn’t buying it. Nor should we.

COYNE: Justice Oliphant’s report leaves no doubt about Mulroney’s credibility

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The word “inappropriate” appears literally dozens of times in the course of Justice Jeffrey Oliphant’s report on Brian Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber. It was inappropriate, the judge found, for Mulroney to have met so many times with Schreiber while he was prime minister and Schreiber was an unregistered lobbyist, inappropriate for him to have entered into business with him scant weeks after leaving office—and on the same file, the Bear Head project, for which Schreiber had been lobbying his government all those years—inappropriate to have taken payments from Schreiber in cash, inappropriate to have kept them in cash, inappropriate not to have deposited the money in a bank account, or leave any other record of the transaction, whether contracts, invoices, receipts, expenses, tax returns or even a decent thank-you note.

Well, no. “Inappropriate” would be the word if Mulroney and Schreiber had entered into a legitimate business arrangement—if Mulroney had never had any dealings with Schreiber before leaving office, or if the business had nothing to do with government, or if it were anything, really, that anyone could attest to or understand or even describe—but had kept no record of it and dealt only in cash and done everything else they could do to conceal it. Or “inappropriate” would perhaps serve if Schreiber, having had privileged access to Mulroney in office and having enjoyed such notable success at winning lucrative contracts from his government, had retained him immediately afterward for some sort of murky “professional services” agreement but at least had kept all the appropriate records and perhaps used the odd bank now and then.

But “inappropriate” does not begin to describe what went on here. Nor is it the judge’s most significant finding. Because Schreiber is not just a lobbyist, but a man with a long and distinguished career as an international arms dealer, whose cheerfully confessed modus operandi, when it came to winning government contracts in other countries, was to bribe the nearest politician. And the European manufacturers who hired him, in secret, to lobby the government of Canada did not just pay him a salary, as they did their in-house lobbyists, but agreed to pay him millions of dollars in commissions, prohibited under Canadian procurement rules, specifying that the agreements would become void in the event of a change of government. And while it has long been known that some of the millions Schreiber was paid, notably for winning the Air Canada contract for Airbus Industrie, went to Mulroney confidants, including his onetime fundraiser, Frank Moores, Judge Oliphant’s report is the first official finding that the money Schreiber paid Mulroney came from the same source (though there is no evidence that Mulroney knew this).

But even that’s not his most significant finding. It is not that Mulroney had done business with Schreiber, or that he made such strenuous efforts to conceal it. It is that he lied about it: lied to keep it a secret, certainly, but more tellingly lied after it was no longer a secret—notably in his testimony before the Oliphant inquiry. To be sure, the judge does not use such precise words. But on point after point, his meaning is unmistakable. He does not believe what Mulroney told him.

On his relationship, while still in office, with Schreiber: “Mr. Mulroney’s description of [it] as ‘peripheral’ is simply not in accord with the evidence I heard.” On how much Schreiber paid him, a point of some dispute between the two: “I have decided not to accept the evidence of either of them.” On what Mulroney did for the money: “I must view with skepticism Mr. Mulroney’s claim to have spoken to the leaders referred to . . . I am unable to conclude that Mr. Mulroney spoke to the Chinese leaders, as asserted by him . . . [I] question seriously the credibility of Mr. Mulroney’s testimony . . . I am not able to find that any services were ever provided by Mr. Mulroney for the monies paid to him by Mr. Schreiber pursuant to the retainer.” On Mulroney’s defence of his cash dealings as a mere error of judgment: “I confess to having a serious problem with that explanation . . . I found Mr. Mulroney’s evidence on this issue to be troubling at best and, at worst, not worthy of any credence.” On Mulroney’s decision to keep the money in cash, rather than deposit it in a bank: “I do not accept the reasons proffered by Mr. Mulroney.” And on and on.

I’ll just pause here and note: this is a former prime minister of Canada we are talking about. It would be extraordinary for any former prime minister of Canada to go before a legal proceeding of any kind and tell anything other than “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” But in the present case it is simply astonishing.

Let us try and put the best face on Mulroney’s behaviour. Let us suppose there was nothing untoward in his relationship with Schreiber, that it was merely, as Mulroney claimed, a matter of bad optics: that he feared the harm to his reputation if it were known he had had any dealings, even legitimate ones, with Schreiber, after the publication of the Justice Department’s letter to the Swiss authorities, accusing him (without evidence) of having taken kickbacks from Schreiber on Airbus and other deals. Perhaps that explains, if not excuses, the lengths to which he was prepared to go to conceal his activities at the time.

But after the terrible secret had come to light? Mulroney had four years to prepare his story, from the time the existence of the cash payments first came to public knowledge until he finally broke his silence in 2007. He had two cracks at it, once before the Commons ethics committee and again before the judicial inquiry. It cannot be argued that he was caught unprepared, or quoted out of context. If he had an innocent explanation, this was it. And now a judge has officially torn it to shreds.

(To be fair, the judge did believe Mulroney on some other points: that he did not formally agree to do business with Schreiber while still prime minister, that their agreement was international rather than domestic in scope, that he spent the cash as he claimed. There’s your headline: “Former prime minister of Canada’s testimony found credible, in parts.”)

Judge Oliphant was particularly scathing on the subject of Mulroney’s testimony in deposition for his celebrated 1996 libel case against the government of Canada, in which he claimed, inter alia and under oath, that he “had never had any dealings” with Schreiber. Judge Oliphant not only found that Mulroney knowingly misled the court on that occasion, but dismissed his defence of the same testimony before the inquiry as no less tendentious. “For Mr. Mulroney to attempt to justify his failure to make disclosure in these circumstances by asserting that [the government lawyers] did not ask the correct question is, in my view, patently absurd . . . What the question called for was a clear, complete, forthright answer. And that answer was not forthcoming from Mr. Mulroney.”

Now, all of this was apparent enough before the report. But now we have, not a journalist, but a judge ruling that Mulroney’s story is not credible: that is, that a former prime minister of Canada lied to a judicial inquiry about his cash dealings shortly after leaving office with an acknowledged dispenser of bribes, who made millions of dollars from contracts obtained from his government, some of which was used to make the payments (though, again, there is no evidence Mulroney knew this).

But do not leave it at that. Because what is significant about this is not, surely, the fact that he lied, but the reason he did. Why would Mulroney go so far as to give false and misleading testimony before a judicial proceeding, not only to conceal his dealings with Schreiber, as in his libel trial, but even after they were exposed? We do not know the answer to that. But what we do know is this. The innocent explanation has now been discredited, thoroughly and officially. Which can only leave us with a not-so-innocent explanation.

When people carry on the way Mulroney and Schreiber did, it is not merely “inappropriate”: it is suspicious. And when, called to account, they still lie about it, well, even suspicious isn’t quite the word.

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