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An affidavit, a story and the PM's volte-face

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was simply furious yesterday, according to insiders, that he was mentioned in an incidental reference by Karlheinz Schreiber in a sworn affidavit.

After all, just last month he had bragged in the Speech from the Throne that the economy was strong, the country was united and “the government is clean.”

And yesterday, the Prime Minister set about to fix the situation; he gave the country 20 minutes warning before he dropped the bombshell.

Just before 4 p.m., having been hunkered down in his Centre Block office since 8:30 a.m. reviewing and consulting senior officials and experts (he did have some other meetings), he called parliamentary reporters to the National Press Theatre on Wellington Street.

And there he announced what he swore he would not do a week ago – appoint someone to look into the allegations surrounding the business dealings between Airbus lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber and former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

For several weeks, the Conservative government and Mr. Harper had defended Mr. Mulroney, whom he considers a friend.

Mr. Harper said he would appoint a third party to look into the affair and advise him and his government on how to proceed.

One of his senior officials said yesterday that what he did was “unprecedented.”

Unprecedented and dramatic – the hastily called press conference, the body language that revealed a slightly uncomfortable Prime Minister who admitted he didn't know what to do about this, and then the surprising reversal from last week.

But new allegations had forced his hand. His senior official said Mr. Harper just didn't want the issue to “fester.”

“It's the way he does business,” said the senior official. “He takes action right away.”

At some point during the 24-hour period before his press conference, the Prime Minister and his officials were given “the heads up,” said the official, through channels that The Globe and Mail would be running a significant story on the business dealings between Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney.

The story said that Mr. Schreiber swore in an affidavit that while Mr. Mulroney was still in office, the two struck a deal for him to be paid $300,000 after he retired.

And this is what changed everything, as the allegations now “touched the office of the Prime Minister,” said the official. “He just decided we have to clear the air once it touched the Prime Minister's Office.”

What his officials didn't play up as much was that Mr. Harper was also named in the affidavit. Mr. Harper said he was “surprised” to see this. Mr. Schreiber alleges that he gave a letter to Mr. Mulroney that was to be shown to Mr. Harper at Harrington Lake. Mr. Mulroney and his family had been guests of the Harpers at the official summer residence in August, 2006.

Mr. Harper said yesterday that no documents were presented, nor did he and Mr. Mulroney speak of Mr. Schreiber.

A veteran Tory says it was this reference that had his blood at the boiling point.

And this is why things changed dramatically from last week, when he almost taunted opposition politicians, saying that it would set a precedent to reopen the Airbus affair, potentially leading to inquiries into the business affairs of other former prime ministers.

“What's new is what was reported in your paper this morning,” said the Prime Minister's director of communications, Sandra Buckler. “Up until today, all there was out there was opposition attacks and a media report. The arrival of a sworn affidavit with new allegations changed the environment, and even though they are unproven and untested in court, they will be the subject of much public discussion and interest and the Prime Minister decided to appoint an independent and impartial fact-finder.”

And just as quickly as he came he left. At 4:30 p.m., after taking 26 minutes of questions, Mr. Harper stood up: “Great. Thank you very much, everyone. Have a good weekend.”

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