Let the games begin

Liveblogging the Oliphant Commission (Day One, Part One)

After months of preparation and preemptive legal wrangling, the much-anticipated public hearings on the Mulroney/Schreiber affair are finally about to begin! And ITQ will be there, gavel to gavel, at least, for the first day — and likely a good number of subsequent days between now and the end of May when the first round of hearings are slated to wrap up.

(Although not, alas, tomorrow since we will be winging our way to the UK for a very special Outside The Queensway adventure.)

Anyway, on the witness list for today are two former ministers:

  • Bill McKnight, who served under Brian Mulroney in a variety of cabinet capacities, including Defence — which is what brings him to Old City Hall today — and who defended the former prime minister after his testimony before the Ethics committee last year, calling Schreiber “scuzzy” while dismissing the allegations against Mulroney as having “nothing to it”
  • Marc Lalonde, a Trudeau-era Swiss Army Knife of a minister who subsequently worked for Schreiber in the mid-90s, and who, according to CBC’s fifth estate, may have omitted some details of his work on the Airbus file from his testimony before the committee last year.

9:08:43 AM
Okay, remember how I said that there was a surprisingly good turnout of reporters on Thursday? Well, compared to this morning, that was nothing — as you might have expected, it’s a madhouse today, comparitively – heck, even objectively speaking, although a madhouse that will run like a Swiss clock factory if the designated media handler, Barry McLoughlin, has anything to say about it. Bedlam by Ikea. Wait, that’s Swedish, not Swiss, but you know what I mean, I’m sure.

Anyway, I got here twenty minutes early and still only just managed to score a seat inside the hearing room itself; there is, of course, an overflow room with a TV feed, but that’s really not the same as being right there in the thick of it.

Come to think of it, it seems as though there are more lawyers here as well – or maybe they’re deliberately spreading out to give the right sense of drama for the eight-man strong phalanx of cameras currently shooting the all important establishing footage.

Also, I can report that, on the fashion front , pinstripe has indisputably won the day over all rivals. Someone should check the proactive disclosure filings for Justice to see if the department bought out the entire stash at Moore’s, or wherever government lawyers go to dress for litigation success.

9:19:15 AM
And there goes the camera phalanx, in pursuit of the not remotely elusive Karlheinz Schreiber, who is likely the only party who will show up today in person.

Ten minutes to go!

9:20:49 AM
You know, if there are this many reporters here for what have mostly been referred to, with not unkind dismissal, as “background witnesses”, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when Mulroney and Schreiber take the stand. Er, not that they’ll be doing so at the same time, as awesome as that would be. I suspect the former prime minister won’t be called until the end, although I could be wrong — Schreiber, after all, will kick off the post-Easter re-launch on April 15th.

9:28:40 AM
And – we’re on! Two minutes early, even, at least according to the ITQBlackBerryStandardTime, but I’d go with the commission in case of conflict. Anyway, Richard Wolson, lead counsel to the Oliphant Inquiry, begins with a short statement that basically lays out the history of the inquiry, from the Johnston recommendations to the establishment of the mandate; how we got here today, in other words. The preparation, Wolson notes, has been “massive” – reviewing thousands of pages of documents, witness interviews, research — all leading up to this moment.

Oh, and the now familiar not even remotely veiled shot at the electronic document management system foisted upon the commission by mandate, which, from the many asides and allusions made to it during the preliminary hearings, sounds like it would make the gun registry database look like an ultra efficient tool that would be a bargain at any price.

9:34:13 AM
Wolson reminds the judge – well, not really the judge; he’s just the judicial inquiry equivalent of a narration device – that regardless of his findings, no legal consequences will ensue: this is not a trial, although that doesn’t mean that the witness examinations won’t be lively and probing.

Ooh, Edward Greenspan – lead counsel for Team Schreiber – is here for the first time. We’re getting a full rundown of the legal teams representing the various clients, which is helpful, although I guarantee you that there will be misspellings of names, and, in some cases, entirely unwarranted renamings. I do promise to do my best not to refer to Justice Oliphant as Gomery, which is a Freudian slip I’ve already made more than once.

9:37:39 AM
Wolson is explaining the link between the inquiry mandate and the Bear Head project that “never materialized”, as well as that fateful meeting at Harrington Lake, while Mulroney was still prime minister, as well as the payments he received from Schreiber, an suddenly, this all seems so much more … real than when we were watching the parties argue pre-inquiry motions.

9:40:49 AM
While describing the evidence that may come before the inquiry, Wolson brings up the testimony before the Ethics committee, which – despite the fact that it was broadcast on television – cannot be used at the inquiry due to Parliament’s refusal to waive privilege.

9:42:54 AM
And – here’s Bill McKnight, or the Honourable Bill McKnight, who takes his seat at the front of the room, at a table, oddly – it looks like he’s waiting for the rest of his panel to arrive – and who is quizzed by the commission counsel on his history, which anyone who read the previous Wikipedia link doesn’t need me to recap, before being asked to ‘cast his mind back’ to when he first heard tell of the Bear Head project. He recalls that it surfaced peripherally when he was at Western Divirsification, but it was only after he became Defence Minister that he received his first “formal briefing”.

Was it that point, the lawyer asks, that he became aware of the existence of Karlheinz Schreiber? Vaguely, yes – and Frank Moores as well, he confirms, who he knew both from his political life — “we were members of the same party” — as well as through his consulting firm, GCI. McKnight also details his relationship with the Doucets – Fred and Gerry – the former of which is, of course, one of the four parties with standing at the inquiry. In response to a question, McKnight tells the inquiry that all that happened around 1989.

9:49:22 AM
And we have our first official piece of evidence: P (for public) 1, a book of documents in support of McKnight’s testimony, which includes a letter dated May 1989 from Moores, on GCI letterhead, which he acknowledges can be read as “supportive” of the project. A bit of back and forth between the two on the relationship at the time between ministers and lobbyists – which sounds similar to the one that exists today with less paperwork – before moving onto the budget, and whether or not the one in which McKnight was involved would have affected the fate of the Bear Head project.

9:52:40 AM
More letter-reading by commission counsel, including an excerpt that seems to suggest that the project had the support of the PM; it’s annoying, but apparently standard courtroom operating procedure not to provide copies of the evidence books to the media, which makes it hard to follow examinations that jump from sentence to sentence.

9:54:14 AM
Did the then-PM ever directly advise McKnight that he was in support of the project? No, he didn’t, the former Defence minister replies — not this particular project, and nor did the PM ever warn him that his actions were inappropriate.

Off to a piece of Schreiberevidence — a page from his agenda.

This particular page, it transpires, includes a notation of a meeting with two annoyingly initialized parties that commission counsel suggests could be McKnight and Elmer MacKay; although McKnight won’t confirm that the meeting took place, he allows that it could well have done so, and the testimony then moves onto a letter from Greg Alford – who ITQ remembers well from the end days at Ethics – related to a sole source contract that was about to be tendered to a company *other* than Bear Head.

The testimony is moving very quickly, y’all; I’m trying to capture it all, but it’s tricky. Which I suspect may be a compliment to the lawyer asking the questions, who isn’t messing around in eliciting the points he wants to make with this witness.

10:01:44 AM
And suddenly, we’re getting a crash course in defence procurement circa 1989, courtesy of McKnight, who – as counsel points out – came from an agricultural background, which meant he had no real military experience. Which, McKnight is swift to point out, hardly makes him unique; at the time, it had been years since a defence minister had a military background. He relied on his staff to provide advice, he notes.

10:04:19 AM
As of September 1989, McKnight had had no discussion with Mulroney on the Bear Head project; although he had seen the letter indicating that he was “supportive”, to his – McKnight’s – knowledge, the PM was allowing him to do his job — as he did throughout the seven portfolios that he held while in cabinet. Ministers running their departments without constant micromanaging by PMO? Man, what universe *was* this?

10:07:05 AM
More about the decision to go with General Motors rather than Thiessen for the jeeps — budgetary factors, regional issues – the Atlantic caucus, McKnight recalls, “very much wanted to see” regional development, especially in Cape Breton. Then there were Ontario MPs who were big on the GM proposal, and so on. Same as today, really – which McKnight points out.

10:09:06 AM
Onto a letter sent by McKnight to Schreiber, which he doesn’t see as particularly noteworthy, really – McKnight doesn’t, that is; I’m sure Schreiber thinks it will blow the top off the grassy knoll, to mix a metaphor. “As a practicing politician, you don’t want to offend either a region or a cabinet colleague,” he notes. The counsel wonders whether his choice of wording — particularly the phrase “when I first saw this letter” — means that he didn’t actually sit down “with a scratch pad” and write it out by hand. McKnight is sorry to shatter any illusions we may have about hands-on ministerial action, but no, he didn’t. That, it turns out, is exactly where counsel wanted to go – from the then-minister’s then-office, which ostensibly signed the letter, to Defence – which, counsel suggests, actually prepared it – as well as PMO and PCO, one or both of it was “consulted” on the letter before it was passed along to McKnight. Which is news to him, apparently – he tells the commission this is the first he’s heard of that “consultation” – but he doesn’t look terribly fussed.

10:15:48 AM
McKnight denies that he was under any pressure from the PM to sign the letter, although he does point to the conflict between cabinet colleagues, of which he had only recently become aware.

Wow, a virtual cameo appearance by Bob Fowler, who was with Defence at the time, and was peripherally involved in the discussions surrounding Thiessen. “I’m going to suggest that didn’t really work,” says the commission lawyer. McKnight agrees, noting that despite the “efficient and articulate” efforts by Bob Fowler – which he hopes we’re all able to hear in future — a sentiment with which counsel – and probably everyone here – concurs — there were further meetings, including one between himself, Elmer MacKay and Karlheinz Schreiber, which elicits a groue of surprise from one of the reporters sitting in front of me. When McKnight confirms that there were, in fact, several additional meetings amongst the trio, the groue is upgraded to a distinct and attentive “Heuhn”.

10:21:40 AM
More meetings, including one “behind the curtains” in the government lobby — those were the days, my friends — between himself, MacKay and Schreiber, and now the reporter sitting next to me is punctating every sentence coming from the front of the room with a “Huh”. Save some for day two, guys.

10:25:00 AM
Another reason why the Bear Head project suddenly seemed like not the best use of defence money: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the thawing of the Cold War, and the overall “change in atmosphere” in the world at that time. Also, we had submarines to replace, and various other fleets of vehicles that I’m sure were invariably referred to by the official Canadian journalistic prefix for all such military properties: “aging”. And that was *before* the decade of darkness, people!

10:27:16 AM
Finally, an unsigned letter, purportedly prepared for McKnight, which he doesn’t remember not signing, and says that, in fact, he probably would.

Did he ever feel pressure on the project, counsel asks him again – from cabinet colleagues or anyone else? Yes, from Schreiber, from Thiessen, from the various lobbyists working on the file — it may have been occasionally “annoying” but not unusual.

10:30:27 AM
Last question – well, last first question, that is – for McKnight: Did he ever notice anything untoward surrounding the project? No – no, he didn’t.

And – that’s all for the direct examination; now, we’re onto cross. First lawyer up: Guy Pratte, who only has a “couple of questions” for the witness.

First, he said that he had only met with Schreiber “once or twice” before becoming defence minister, which McKnight reconfirms. Had he encountered him before – at social functions, that sort of thing? Only if you consider party leadership a social function, says McKnight, and Pratte veers hastily away. They ran into each other on occasion in airports, that kind of thing – but McKnight wouldn’t _- and presumably didn’t – consider him a ‘friend’. Oh, sharper than the serpent’s tooth.

10:34:50 AM
Pratte wasn’t understating it when he said he only had a few questions – after one more exchange on the above lines, he hands the floor over to Richard Auger – second in command over at the Schreiber Schtrikeforce – who quizzes him on – wait, is he re-arguing the case in favour of the Bear Head project, vis a vis its superior offering.

Oh! We just got documents! Thank you, Oliphant Commission – this is going to make life so much easier!

10:37:21 AM
Now, onto Vickery – Paul Vickery, that is, not Kevin Vickery, although now I wonder if they’re actually related. Anyone know? Anyway, he asks McKnight to explain what he meant by “behind the curtains”, and he does — it’s the area — well, behind the curtains, in the government lobby, from which, these days at least, all lobbyists, journalists and anyone else without a special lobby pass is banned from entering.

10:39:34 AM
One last burst of redirect from Wolson on his discussion with “one of the Doucets” – he believed it was Gerald, but isn’t sure – who was touting Bear Head, and McKnight tells him that he believed it was in his capacity as a member of GCI. “That’s Moores’ firm,” Wolson points out helpfuly. Yes. Yes, it is.

And now, the judge — not Wolson as previously reported in this space — who wants to know who the regional minister was for Atlantic Canada at the time Why, that would be Elmer MacKay – although McKnight notes that he may just have been regional minister for Nova Scotia. He then obligingly provides Oliphant, who confesses that he “doesn’t know much” abouit politics – with a brief explanation of what a regional minister does.

10:43:37 AM
And – huh. No more questions from Oliphant, which means he is excused – with a few light jibes at the weather in Saskatoon “where it rains ice”, and we’re adjourned until 1:30 — definitely earlier than anyone was expecting, but since the next witness isn’t available until then, there’s nothing else for us to do for the next two hours. Which means ITQ will be taking a break to go through the documents and get ready for the next installment, so check back at 1pm for the continuation of today’s thrilling tale.

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