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The mud being flung at Paul Martin

Bombshell after bombshell has landed at the Gomery inquiry. The allegations of corruption within the Chrétien government and at some ad firms the government dealt with are shocking. Testimony released this week from Chuck Guité, the bureaucrat who ran the sponsorship program from 1997 to 1999, has been particularly incendiary. When the next election comes -- preferably after Mr. Justice John Gomery has tabled a report weighing all the conflicting stories -- those Canadians who want the current Liberal government to pay for any sins of its previous incarnation will take their anger and sense of betrayal out on Paul Martin. That's understandable.

What is unfortunate is the degree to which the Conservative Party is trying to nail Mr. Martin's own hide to a post. There has been no persuasive testimony that Mr. Martin was involved in any of the alleged chicanery that has seen charges laid, the Liberals pinned and the unholy alliance between party and advertising firms scrutinized. Judge Gomery and the inquiry lawyers have been thorough in seeking to know just what went on in the sponsorship scandal and, increasingly, outside it. But as the shouting in the Commons escalates and accusations are pitched left and right, simple justice requires that the Prime Minister not be personally tarred with something in which he has not been credibly implicated.

Consider Mr. Guité's testimony, released this week from an earlier publication ban. He testified that the federal procurement system was rotten far beyond the sponsorships arranged after the 1995 sovereignty referendum, that the rot was far from exclusive to operations in Quebec, and that the rot had been there under the Mulroney Conservatives. He said that when agencies helped the Liberals win elections, it was expected that the Liberals would return the favour by bestowing lucrative contracts even if the rules said other agencies should get them. He named names, many names, as forthcoming now as he was reticent in earlier statements to the Commons public accounts committee. Many of those he fingered have challenged his recollections. Again, a sorting job for Judge Gomery.

And Mr. Martin? According to the testimony, Mr. Guité was trying, as a private lobbyist in 2000, to ensure that Toronto agency Vickers & Benson Advertising Ltd. not lose federal work. Mr. Guité said his successor at the Department of Public Works, Pierre Tremblay, told him that the department's then-minister, Alfonso Gagliano, had spoken to then-finance-minister Martin and another minister, and that the message was, "Look, rest assured that the volume of business will be maintained." Mr. Tremblay is in no position to confirm or deny; he died last fall. And it is difficult to imagine a more tenuous string of hearsay: A told B, who told C, who told D. Mr. Martin promptly denied ever involving himself in the determination of contract awards, and has specifically denied talking with Mr. Gagliano "with respect to ensuring that any individual supplier receive contracts from the Government of Canada." In an interview with the Italian-language newspaper Corriere Canadese, Mr. Gagliano denied ever speaking of contracts with Mr. Martin.

But the thin reed of Mr. Guité's hearsay was enough for Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, who asked the Prime Minister to "just stand up and admit that money went from his ministry to the firms that he favoured." Jason Kenney said of Mr. Guité, "He's no longer covering for Jean Chrétien, Jean Pelletier, Paul Martin and the rest of the Liberals who designed this program to benefit the Liberal Party." Notice how smoothly Mr. Kenney slides Mr. Martin's name into that line, evidently calculating that if you say something unfounded often enough, people will believe it.

Mr. Kenney had been similarly quick to believe Mr. Guité's remarks about Mr. Martin in April of last year when his own colleagues had doubts. Mr. Guité told the Commons public accounts committee that Terrie O'Leary, finance minister Martin's executive assistant, had intervened in the 1990s to have a contract awarded to Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a firm with close ties to Mr. Martin. Ms. O'Leary, since retired, denied the story categorically. Conservative MP John Williams, chair of the committee, had serious doubts about Mr. Guité's credibility in other respects, and said, "You can't have it both ways." Mr. Kenney was undeterred, saying Mr. Martin was "up to his neck in political interference."

Mr. Harper asked this week how, given Mr. Guité's allegations, Canadians could possibly not think Mr. Martin was involved in directing contracts to favoured firms. Well, perhaps Canadians are fairer-minded than Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenney. Perhaps they are not as keen to seize on any excuse, however tenuous, to push the country into an election. Perhaps they have higher standards.

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