What do we know now that we wouldn’t have known if the Gomery Commission hadn’t been appointed? How much have we learned from Gomery that we haven’t already learned from the auditor general’s report on the sponsorship scandal? And is it worth the expense?
Appointed by the Martin government on February 10, 2004, the very day of the release of Fraser’s report, the Gomery Commission will publish its findings on November 1 of this year and issue its final recommendations on December 15. Even before Justice John Gomery began the Ottawa phase of his hearings last September, the commis- sion had accumulated 28 million pieces of paper. In 128 days of public hearings in Ottawa and Montreal to the end of May, the transcripts ran to 25,000 pages of testimony. Closing arguments were to be heard in June, followed by Gomery’s retreat from the cameras to write his report.
On any given day, as many as two dozen parties had standing or representation before the commission, with more clamouring for the right to be heard with each devas- tating disclosure during the Montreal hearings.
”œHave a place, if you can find one,” Gomery told a lawyer seeking standing for his client as the hearings drew to a close in May. Since his ill-advised media interviews over the holidays, in which he referred to Jean Chrétien’s signa- ture golf balls as ”œsmall-town cheap,” Gomery has studious- ly avoided the media. But he’s been unable to suppress his cracker barrel sense of humour, and has enlivened the pro- ceedings with his propensity for cutting to the chase. When Daniel Dezainde, a former director-general of the Liberal Party of Canada in Quebec, testified he was worried that his car might be blown up in a garage, Gomery leaned over and asked if he didn’t have a set of car keys with a remote starter.
Previously an obscure judge of the Quebec Superior Court and chair of the equally obscure Copyright Board of Canada, Gomery has become a household name across the country. It isn’t every commission of inquiry that almost triggers the downfall of the government.
What do we know now that we didn’t know then? What have we learned since Gomery overtook Auditor General Sheila Fraser? Plenty.
As explosive as her report was, Fraser was limited in both mandate and scope. As she said on releasing it, ”œWe could not look at these funds once they left the government.”
Therein lies the tale ”” and the money trail ”” laid out before Gomery. Fraser uncovered a breakdown of the bureaucracy, while Gomery has discovered where the money went after that, and some of it was right out of Goodfellas.
Fraser was shocked by ”œthe wide- spread non-compliance with con- tracting rules.” Those rules, she concluded ”œwere broken at every stage of the process for more than four years and there was little evi- dence of value received for money spent.” During that time, she noted, ”œthe sponsorship program consumed $250 million of taxpayers’ money, and $100 million of that went to agencies in fees and commissions.” She concluded: ”œOur findings on the government’s sponsorship program from 1997 to 2001 are deeply disturbing.”
Disturbing as her findings were, they were essentially a story of bureau- crats bending and breaking the rules to do the bidding of their political mas- ters. But even as they broke the rules, the bureaucrats’ instinct for self- preservation prevailed, and they creat- ed a paper trail of faxes, e-mails, memos and requisitions. It led first to the office of Chuck Guité, manager of the sponsorship program and govern- ment advertising, and from there to the offices of successive ministers of Public Works, and finally to the Prime Minister’s Office. As the trail led to the highest elective office in the land, the scandal emerged as a saga of the mis- appropriation of public funds by politicians and misadministration by the public servants who cut corners to please them. In Ottawa, when the word is passed that ”œthe PMO wants this,” everybody gets it, and nobody gets in the way.
The prime minister himself, Jean Chrétien, personally signed off on the initial $17 million requisition creating the program in 1996, the purpose being to increase federal visibility in Quebec after the close-run thing of the October 1995 Quebec referendum, in which his No forces barely prevailed with 50.56 percent of the vote.
If the object of the program was to make the Liberal Party synonymous with federalism in Quebec, then it has been a complete success ”” in entirely the wrong way.
The Liberals are indelibly identi- fied with the sponsorship program, with no distinction made between administrations. Even though Prime Minister Paul Martin cancelled the program on his first day in office, even though he appointed Gomery and supported him unequivocally when Chrétien tried to have him removed in February, Martin is set to pay a heavy price at the polls, nowhere more so than in Quebec.
Where the Liberals had been mod- estly rebounding in Quebec polls before Christmas, their numbers have plummeted since the Gomery hearings moved to Montreal. With the Bloc Québécois polling above 50 percent, and the Liberals below 20 percent in a succession of polls in April and May, the Bloc appeared poised to win at least 60 Quebec seats. If the trend holds, this would reduce the Liberals to 15 seats or less, their worst showing since the 1988 free trade election in which Brian Mulroney won 63 Quebec seats with 53 percent of the vote.
Martin must rue the day he ever appointed Gomery. Had he simply asked the RCMP to follow up on the AG’s report, the prime minister could have declined to comment on an ongoing police investigation. That police investigation wouldn’t have been led by a squad of special prosecutors known as commission counsel, and it wouldn’t have been aided by a crack firm of forensic accountants. Most of all, it wouldn’t have been on televi- sion day after day, corroding public faith in government and politicians in general and the Liberal Party in particular.
Ironically, the explosive nature of the Gomery revelations is the most persuasive evidence that Martin, as he claimed all along, was not involved in the sponsorship program. No politi- cian in his right mind, if he had been involved, would have appointed a commission of inquiry to, as Martin has said, ”œget to the bottom of it.”
What wouldn’t we know now if Gomery hadn’t followed Fraser?
We wouldn’t know that Jean Lafleur of Lafleur Communications had $65 million of sponsorship billings and his entire family on the government payroll to the tune of $12 million. That he earned $100,000 from his company the year the program was launched and $2 million five years later. That down the hall from his office, his son, Eric, was billing the government, by way of his father, nearly $6.5 million to produce sponsorship gadgets, from those famous signature golf balls to a $25,000 souvenir album for Rideau Hall. That Jean Lafleur bought sea- son tickets to the Montreal Canadiens ”” two in the reds ”” and charged them back to the govern- ment as an expense. None of this ever showed on the government’s books. The Lafleurs have been com- pared in the popular culture to Les Bougon, a wildly popular Radio- Canada comedy series about a family of welfare cheats who beat the sys- tem at every turn.
We wouldn’t know that Lafleur, through his son’s company, hired Chrétien’s close friend and sen- ior Quebec campaign operative, Jacques Corriveau, on retainer at $60,000 a year in 1998. Corriveau has a company called Pluri Design, which did all out the outdoor signage, posters and printing for the Liberal Party in Quebec in the three election campaigns of the Chrétien era. He was also the beneficiary of nearly $8 million in sponsorship contracts, which he collected as a sub-contrac- tor to third parties, making him notably absent from the govern- ment’s books.
We wouldn’t know about Paul Coffin of Coffin Communications, one of the smaller fish in this sea, sending fake invoices to Public Works at the request, according to his testimony, of the man who received them, Chuck Guité.
We wouldn’t know that the advertising industry, whose relation- ships of convenience with the party in power have long been considered business as usual, could use a briefing on lobbying laws. That Vickers and Benson of Toronto, when it was being sold in 2000 to the New York office of the French multinational Havas, hired Chuck Guité only six months after he had left the government to lobby his former minister, Alfonso Gagliano, for assurance, as a condi- tion of closing the sale to a foreign company, so they wouldn’t lose their two biggest government clients: Tourism Canada and Canada Savings Bonds. A Canadian subsidiary was created that met the 100 percent Canadian ownership requirement for receiving government advertising contracts. Guité lobbied Gagliano over dinner in violation of the gov- ernment’s post-employment lobby- ing rules. The sale closed uneventfully and Guité was paid $100,000 commission.
We wouldn’t know, without for- mer Groupaction president Jean Brault’s testimony, that there was a system of donations and kickbacks to the Liberal Party from the Montreal agencies implicated in the scandal, all of whom donated generously to the Liberal Party ”” legally in most instances, but illegally in others. That $50,000 in donations to Liberal organizers was funnelled illegally through third parties later reimbursed by Brault. That Brault donated another $50,000 cash at the start of the 2000 campaign ”” at the request of Liberal Party director-general Benoit Corbeil ”” that was never reported.
We wouldn’t know that Brault agreed to kick back $100,000 cash for the promise from Gagliano bagman Joe Morselli of continued ad work on the government’s gun registry. Or that $25,000 of it was delivered at a Christmas party hosted by Gagliano. Only $50,000 was ever paid, and it’s not clear whether any of it actually got to the Liberal Party, which was per- petually broke despite being in government, despite all the donations flowing to it from suppliers, and which by 2001 was $3 million in debt.
We wouldn’t know about Joe Morselli, a survivor of the rough-and- tumble world of school-board politics in the Montreal suburb of St-Leonard, where ”” by persons who remain unknown ”” his car was blown up in his driveway one night in 1989. His catering company, Buffet Trio, has contracts with the Revenue Canada GST centre in Shawinigan and RCMP headquarters in Montreal. When Benoit Corbeil was handing over as director-general of the party’s Quebec wing in 2001, he told his successor, Daniel Dezainde, that Morselli was ”œthe real boss” of the party in Quebec and would decide which bills got paid and which didn’t. Though the party had no vice-president of its finance commission, Morselli had business cards, printed by Corriveau’s firm, bearing the non-existent title, presumably to enhance his fundrais- ing abilities.
We certainly wouldn’t know about the illegal and quite possibly decisive cash injection in the 1997 campaign; as much as $300,000, according to Michel Béliveau, then director-general of the Liberal Party in Quebec and organizer of Chrétien’s campaigns in St-Maurice since 1965. Jacques Corriveau handed him $75,000 to $100,000 of that cash in, Béliveau said, ”œa rather thick envelope.”
We wouldn’t know about the $120,000 in cash handed over in three instalments to Marc-Yvan CoÌ‚té, a legendary provincial Liberal organizer ”” of both election and ref- erendum campaigns ”” and former health minister under Robert Bouras- sa. Hired out to the federal Liberals in the 1997 campaign, CoÌ‚té never reported the cash, though he certain- ly knew the law. In the 1997 elec- tion, the Liberals were returned to office with 155 seats in a 301-seat House, four more than a bare major- ity. Twenty-six of those seats were in Quebec, seven more than the Liber- als won in 1993. Their improved score, partly thanks to that illegal cash, was the margin of their slim majority.
We wouldn’t know that the operation was being run not by a rogue element ”” as suggested by Martin’s Quebec lieutenant, Transport Minister Jean Lapierre ”” but by les hommes de confiance, all the prime minister’s men. In terms of political organizers in Quebec, no one was closer to Chrétien than Béliveau and Corriveau and no one was more respected than CoÌ‚té. Far from being rogues, they were the party establishment.
And we wouldn’t know where all that cash went. What we still don’t know is where much of it came from, although we do know a bank won’t give you more than $10,000 cash at once, not with- out asking why, and perhaps not without calling the cops.
Critics of Gomery cite its cost ”” as much as $72 million when all the lawyers, forensic accountants, consultants, advisers and staff are paid, as well as the time-on-the-job cost of public servants answering Gomery’s questions.
Above all, we know that Gomery, because of what we know now that we didn’t know then, has earned his keep.