Brian Mulroney's second biggest mistake was taking cash from Karlheinz Schreiber. His biggest mistake was being introduced to him in the first place. That's what the former prime minister told the House of Commons ethics committee yesterday. Other than that, he left most questions about his relationship with the German-Canadian fugitive from justice unanswered.
We never found out what exactly Mulroney knew about the offshore funds, supplied by Schreiber and others, to help anti-Joe Clark delegates make it to Winnipeg and clear the way for a leadership convention that saw Mulroney take the prize and the prime ministership shortly thereafter.
We got conflicting accounts of what was said at that meeting at Harrington Lake just two days before Mulroney stepped down as prime minister. According to Mulroney, it was a "courtesy call." According to Schreiber, Mulroney agreed to go to work for him. That understanding is backed up by the records demonstrating that Schreiber soon opened a Swiss bank account, code-named it "britan," deposited $500,000 and then withdrew some cash that he handed over to Mulroney the following month.
The cash was interesting, too. Mulroney told us he got only $225,000 in total, $75,000 at each of their rendezvous. Schreiber says $100,000 times three, and the bank records indicate that was the amount he withdrew. Which was it?
We got an explanation, sort of, of the work Mulroney agreed to do, and said he did. International lobbying on behalf of Bear Head. Who did Mulroney approach? The president of France (now deceased), the president of Russia (now deceased), and certain unidentified Chinese and American officials. All these activities, Mulroney said, were reported to Schreiber when they met for about an "hour" in December of 1994, at the Pierre hotel, where he picked up his final cash instalment. International work of this kind meant there was no need to register as a lobbyist. There are no records of the work performed, the time spent.
An explanation was offered about why Mulroney took so long to declare the cash. But it didn't make much sense. Mulroney took the cash payments and put them in safety deposit boxes. As he went about working for Schreiber, he would allocate expenses to the "retainer," making notes, also long gone, about expenses actually incurred.
Then when Schreiber got into legal trouble, he decided to put some distance between the two of them and, notwithstanding those legitimate expenses, declared the entire amount, the $225,000 that is, as income and paid all taxes owing and then, and only then, spent the money. He "integrated" it, he said, into cash flow.
Speaking of distancing himself from Schreiber, we never learned why, once that became desirable, Mulroney still arranged to meet with him at the Hotel Savoy in Switzerland in 1998.
In the meantime, the ethics committee has finished its work for 2007. Mulroney has been invited back next February, and it would be good if the committee could drill down about why the former prime minister was not a little more forthright when he testified in April, 1996, that he would meet Schreiber for coffee at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, but didn't mention that he also once went there to pick up some cash.
The one thing we did learn yesterday was the one thing we already knew. That the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has had nothing to do with any of this. Even though the MPs split on party lines, and in questioning the former prime minister pursued partisan agendas, no one could touch Harper.
So where does that leave us? The current government has done nothing wrong. Mulroney left office in 1993. He danced and weaved and bobbed about in his testimony yesterday. Part of the problem, of course, is Karlheinz Schreiber. He promises Christmas, but it is April Fool's Day instead, and the joke is on us for letting him distract us from important national business by promising details but delivering instead binders filled mostly with newspaper clippings and other useless junk.
Schreiber must be put to the test. Some day soon the Supreme Court of Canada will almost certainly dismiss his application for leave to appeal. Other than the odd motion here and there, he has lost in every single legal process since the government of Germany requested his return to face criminal charges.
There are lots of reasons to believe that many millions of dollars were distributed to people in positions of influence in Canada when Mulroney was prime minister. If Schreiber has the goods, then we should probably make a deal to allow him to stay in return for spilling the beans. If he can't deliver, then it's time to say auf wiedersehen.
Discovering whether there were serious ethical and other improprieties by Mulroney or others is important. But it does not appear now to warrant a full-blown inquiry. Mulroney gave us an explanation yesterday. His answers deserve some follow-up and, assuming it is more of the same, we should probably call it a day.
At most, nothing we have seen so far justifies a travelling road show. Hire a special prosecutor and let him or her look into this, and recommend whether there is any basis for criminal charges against anyone that have a reasonable prospect of success. Otherwise, what happened way back then is a matter of mostly historical interest and the historians can take care of that.
William Kaplan is the author of A Secret Trial: Brian Mulroney, Stevie Cameron and the Public Trust