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Commentary

Great theatre, but the show ain't over yet

From Friday's Globe and Mail

A bravura performance! An apology to the nation. A total demolition of the credibility of his antagonist. A display of self pity just shy of Richard Nixon's Checkers speech. Houdini-like work in escaping traps set before him.

"Brilliant," said Robert Thibault - a Liberal! - of the Brian Mulroney show on the Rideau yesterday. "He was fully prepared. He's a great communicator."

When Mr. Mulroney entered the Commons committee room at 9 a.m., his huge head had a grey and grim look, his lantern jaw pulling it downward. As he left four hours later, the former prime minister was beaming from cheek to cheek.

His triumph was far from total, however. His deck was missing a few cards and, at times, it showed. His explanation for being six years late in paying tax on the cash payments he received from Karlheinz Schreiber - that he kept the money in a safe and a safety deposit box and used it as expenses that didn't have to be declared - left many shaking their heads.

Mr. Mulroney never put the Schreiber cash in a bank. He didn't get receipts on it from the German maestro. He didn't record the payments at his law firm.

With all that, what was an educated guesser to think? The guesser would allege, "Hey, this guy kept the cash payments coming so he wouldn't have to pay the taxman."

The Mulroney apology for accepting the cash handouts was full enough. But it is so late in coming - 13 years after the transactions happened.

It appeared he never felt much remorse in the interim. And at the time, he kept repeating the error. Asked about the repeat incidents, he said, "A human error cannot be broken down."

His major work of the day was in dismantling Mr. Schreiber. His performance here, in exposing one mammoth Schreiber contradiction after another, was a work of art. He left his opponent's reputation in tatters.

But everyone, including some on his own team, was left to wonder after the show why Mr. Mulroney had waited so long. If, as he claimed, he had nothing to hide, why didn't he come forward, make his apology, make his other explanations when the controversy was beginning to stir? That, instead of letting suspicion build and build.

He lashed out at certain media as being enablers of Karlheinz Schreiber. But in his dealings with the media, he has been his own worst enemy. By staying silent he's left the media with only one side of the story to report - not his.

He didn't have much response when asked about why he had waited so long to come forward. But it sounded as though he realizes now that it was a strategic error.

Mr. Mulroney tried to pull on the heartstrings many times in his testimony yesterday. He recalled, for example, his total personal devastation, "the near-death experience" he had been put through on the Airbus affair. And now life, he told everyone, was dealing him another awful turn. Maybe - and let's not forget he also went through a near-death health crisis a couple of years back - it is. But it's doubtful there will be any rallying to him by Canadians. Their minds seem to be made up long ago.

He scores better when he does humour and that, too, was in his arsenal. In describing how he had been so unfairly smeared, he quoted Edward R. Murrow. "A lie can make its way around the entire world before the truth has a chance to put on its pants in the morning." He was able to leave Mr. Schreiber with his pants down all day long. His favourite trick was to take what Mr. Schreiber had said in testimony in years previous and show that it absolutely contradicted what the same Mr. Schreiber has been saying more recently. For the alleged Britan account that Mr. Schreiber said was opened in Europe to hold money for Mr. Mulroney, the former PM produced an outright Schreiber denial from 1999 that such an account ever existed.

Mr. Mulroney barely got a question on the alleged offshore money that his gang has been accused of using in helping to bring down Tory leader Joe Clark in 1983. But he appeared to score when he did get a question, producing old Schreiber testimony saying he had contributed only to Mr. Mulroney's 1976 leadership campaign; that he never contributed to Mr. Mulroney's 1983 leadership campaign. But the key question of 1983 was whether the German-born Canadian and his European colleagues had contributed to the dump-Clark movement that preceded that year's leadership campaign.

In televised interviews, Mr. Schreiber, Walter Wolf and others totally negate what Mr. Mulroney had to say on this issue yesterday. But he dodged a bullet because there were no follow-up questions.

At one point, the former PM was asked how anyone could know that the old Schreiber versions he was citing were more true or false than the same man's recent take on things. "If you figure that one out," Mr. Mulroney said, "you're going to heaven."

He zeroed in on the affidavit Mr. Schreiber produced a month ago. It was totally false, he said, employed as "a stay-out-of-jail card." For one thing, the affidavit alleged that a Mulroney adviser asked Mr. Schreiber to transfer funds made in connection with the purchase of Airbus planes to Mr. Mulroney's lawyer in Geneva. The former PM, with courtroom precision, discredited it so much that his interrogators were left flat-footed.

Nearing the end of his testimony, he was given to wondering aloud, after having called for a public inquiry himself, whether there should now even be one, given the flimsiness of Mr. Schreiber's case.

After yesterday, the evidence did indeed appear thinner. But not flimsy enough to keep the hounds at bay.

lmartin@globeandmail.com

WHEN DID SCHREIBER AND MULRONEY FIRST STRIKE THEIR DEAL?

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney testified yesterday that he was not retained by Karlheinz Schreiber until the German-Canadian businessman handed him an envelope filled with $1,000 bills at a hotel

near Montreal's Mirabel airport on Aug. 27, 1993. Mr. Schreiber insists that they entered into a business agreement at the prime minister's official summer residence two months earlier while Mr. Mulroney

was still in office. Who's telling the truth? Mr. Schreiber's Swiss bank records, and the creation

of the coded account in which Mr. Mulroney's money was held and later withdrawn, suggest that the lobbyist had a deal in mind for the former prime minister more than a month before the August meeting.

This form from the Swiss Bank Corporation, which was provided

to The Globe and Mail by Mr. Schreiber, shows that he ordered

the opening of a new Canadian funds account, codenamed 'Britan,'

on July 12, 1993 -- 19 days after he met Mr. Mulroney at his summer residence. Mr. Schreiber says the order was taken by his banker,

Andre Strobel. The stamp "veranlasst" means "order given."

Mr. Schreiber asks for $500,000 to be transferred from another Canadian funds bank account, codenamed 'Frankfurt,' to the new account codenamed

'Britan' by July 28, 1993.

On July 27, 1993 -- exactly one month before Mr. Schreiber met Mr. Mulroney at the hotel in Mirabel, Que. -- Mr. Schreiber withdrew $100,500 in cash from his new 'Britan' account. Mr. Mulroney testified yesterday that he only received $75,000, but Mr. Schreiber insists that the former prime minister was given $100,000.

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