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Mulroney at the inquiry: How sad it should have come to this

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

He sticks to us still.

Sixteen years after leaving the Prime Minister's Office, Brian Mulroney will not, or rather cannot, escape the limelight, in the worst possible circumstances for him.

Yesterday, Mr. Mulroney entered the televised public inquiry into some of his activities with fugitive German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, accompanied by wife Mila, two children and a cluster of advisers and friends, looking very much like a man carrying all of his 70 years.

How sad for all but Mr. Mulroney's fiercest detractors (there remain many) that it should have come to this: an inquiry into cash stuffed in envelopes, transactions with a sleazy lobbyist wanted for alleged crimes and real political scandals in Germany, an already challenged political legacy now dragged through this miserable prism. For this, Mr. Mulroney is partly responsible, having not revealed important issues and having changed parts of his story, just as Mr. Schreiber has repeatedly done.

Mr. Schreiber has played the Canadian media like a maestro and exploited the absurdities of Canadian extradition law. He has turned courts into a laughingstock, launched various allegations and caused the creation of a parliamentary inquiry, and he now enjoys the apparent satisfaction of this public inquiry. Not bad for a man wanted in Germany.

Mr. Schreiber slithered into the hall half an hour before Mr. Mulroney. There, he sat alone, his own evidence having been presented. His lawyers and other counsel will cross-examine Mr. Mulroney later, but yesterday, the former prime minister's lawyer spoon-fed the questions to his client.

The resulting portrait revealed that, indeed, Mr. Mulroney had taken $75,000 in cash from Mr. Schreiber in the first of three instalments at Mirabel airport on Aug. 27, 1993, after Mr. Mulroney was no longer prime minister. It was therefore a private transaction between two businessmen, Mr. Mulroney insisted, with no transgression of the public interest.

The money, he said, was to keep a "watching brief" internationally on behalf of Mr. Schreiber's business interests, including promoting the sale of armoured personnel carriers to the United Nations.

Mr. Mulroney acknowledged that accepting cash payments was "inappropriate for former office-holders and should be avoided at all times." Nonetheless, he took the money and kept the transaction private because he did not want a repeat of the torment he and his family had previously endured during allegations that he had profited from the sale of Airbus planes to Air Canada. "The enormity of those events scarred me and my family for life," he asserted.

Indeed, part of the day's strategy involved allowing Mr. Mulroney to discuss his humble upbringing, his duties as a family man, his obligations as prime minister and his interest in the UN. Tangents they were, designed to show him as worthy, dutiful and too busy as PM to involve himself in anything untoward with Mr. Schreiber.

Taking the money was an error in judgment, to be sure; a criminal act, definitely not. Mr. Mulroney said he had not lobbied for Mr. Schreiber in Canada, which would have contravened the country's ethics laws, nor dealt with the German businessman while prime minister.

Nor had he approved the Bear Head factory in Cape Breton, for which Mr. Schreiber was seeking approval. Nor was he desperate for money upon leaving office, as Mr. Schreiber alleged, since had board directorships, a lucrative law partnership and $45,000 (U.S.) speeches beckoning.

He had known Mr. Schreiber, yes, but barely. Their meetings had been perfunctory, the photos of them together arranged by others, their correspondence routine. Obviously, Mr. Schreiber's recollections are different, but it should be remembered that Mr. Schreiber's stock in trade as a lobbyist in Germany and Canada was to portray himself to his corporate paymasters as proximate to the politically powerful.

Mr. Mulroney's testimony, naturally enough, had been rehearsed with his lawyer, Guy Pratte. He did have time, this being Mr. Mulroney after all, for a couple of political zingers.

He explained that a prime minister is so powerful in the Canadian system that he could overrule all the advice of his public servants, just as Mr. Harper did in cutting the goods and services tax against the advice of the Department of Finance. He said Mr. Harper could say, "It might have been bad economics, but it's good politics because I won."

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