Three months ago, Brian Mulroney dismissed questions about his relationship with German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber as "the usual trash and trivia of politics." He will have to do much better in today's appearance before Parliament's ethics committee. No longer can the former prime minister, who polls suggest has even less public trust than the controversial Mr. Schreiber, afford to brush off the questions. Too many concerns have been raised by Mr. Schreiber's recent appearances before the same committee, and too many previous explanations have been discredited. If Mr. Mulroney wishes to restore a reputation tattered by Mr. Schreiber's allegations and the indisputable facts that he pocketed hundreds of thousands in cash and failed to declare it on his taxes at the time, today is the day to start.
The simplest place to begin - and the one to which this committee is best suited - is with the famous payments, totalling $300,000, made by Mr. Schreiber to Mr. Mulroney. Mr. Schreiber has flatly denied they were in any way a kickback for the 1988 Airbus deal or any other decisions made while Mr. Mulroney was running the government. But the businessman's explanation that the payments were made in return for promised lobbying efforts on behalf of a proposed light-armoured-vehicle plant in Nova Scotia has only opened the door to new questions.
To begin with, what exactly did Mr. Mulroney promise to do in return for that money? Is it true his associates initiated the arrangement, and, if so, how and when was Mr. Schreiber approached? Did Mr. Mulroney pledge to use his influence with his successor, Kim Campbell, and, if so, in what way? What, if anything, did he follow through on?
Is it true, as Mr. Schreiber has suggested, that Mr. Mulroney had already effectively killed the arms-
plant proposal back in 1990? If so, did he mislead Mr. Schreiber into believing it was still an open file? If the payments really were related to the arms plant, what was it about the arrangement that made Mr. Mulroney so uncomfortable that, once they came to light a decade later, he offered up (through a spokesman) a different story about helping Mr. Schreiber with a start-up pasta business? And why did he take the payments in cash - a highly unusual way for a former prime minister to conduct business?
Then there are questions of timing, including Mr. Schreiber's claim the two men met while Mr. Mulroney was still prime minister - albeit just two days before he left the job - to discuss a business relationship. If so, how specific were those talks? If the amount to be paid to Mr. Mulroney was not discussed then, when and where was it agreed upon? What are we to make of the letter to Mr. Mulroney, dated three months before he left office, in which Mr. Schreiber refers to discussing the Nova Scotia project at a previous meeting? Perhaps most important, if reports are correct that the first $100,000 instalment was paid to Mr. Mulroney while he was still an MP, did he seek advice as to whether he was violating the Parliament of Canada Act's provision that no MP receive compensation "for services rendered or to be rendered to any person, either by the member or another person ... for the purpose of influencing or attempting to influence any member of either House"?
Then there is the matter of Mr. Mulroney's taxes. Why did he wait so long before making a voluntary disclosure? When, exactly, did he finally do so? Did he pay any GST - potentially a key indicator of whether services were indeed provided to Mr. Schreiber in return for his money? Did he report the $100,000 he received from Mr. Schreiber while in New York, in accordance with the United States' strict cash reporting requirements? What prompted him to disclose income he may previously have been reluctant to disclose?
Even if MPs obtain clear answers on all or most of these matters, a broader question will remain. In 1983, it seems, Mr. Schreiber helped bankroll Mr. Mulroney's ascent to the Progressive Conservative leadership. By 1993, Mr. Schreiber was close enough to Mr. Mulroney that, by his account, his payments were motivated partly by compassion for the former prime minister's purportedly difficult financial situation. What was Mr. Schreiber's relationship with Mr. Mulroney's government in the decade in between?
There is no evidence to suggest impropriety on Mr. Mulroney's part during that period - only a vague claim from Mr. Schreiber that he was asked by Fred Doucet, a former chief of staff for Mr. Mulroney, to send cash to the Swiss bank account of a lawyer for the former prime minister "for Airbus." Mr. Mulroney can perhaps shed some light on that matter by clarifying whether he had such a lawyer. But in light of Mr. Schreiber's obviously close relationship with Mr. Doucet, former minister Elmer MacKay and other influential figures around the Mulroney government, and the many millions of dollars Mr. Schreiber apparently spent lobbying during that period, closer examination is needed. It bears investigation whether members of the Mulroney government were unduly influenced by Mr. Schreiber, and how, if at all, individuals profited from their closeness to Mr. Mulroney.
On these matters, too, the committee may make headway. But it is more likely, given their broad scope and the number of potential witnesses, that information will come from the public inquiry promised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Today's hearing may finally elicit some answers from Mr. Mulroney, but it is unlikely to get all of them.