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Conduct unbecoming

From Friday's Globe and Mail

It was in the nature of Karlheinz Schreiber's business dealings, as a peddler of arms and securer of government contracts, to get close to politicians who could help him and his clients, and to pay politicians and lobbyists money, often in cash.

Cash cannot easily be traced, which is why it was used by Mr. Schreiber. Indeed, when asked why he used cash, he answered that this was how he did business - the kind of business that involved money-for-access and, he hoped, eventually contracts for his clients and very large payments for himself.

This was his sleazy world in Germany, and he brought it to Canada.

In Germany, he played in and around the Christian Democratic Party, splashing big shots with money, pouring funds into party coffers. His clients, large German conglomerates, were accustomed to paying (bribing in some countries, if necessary) for access and contracts all around the world. They wanted to know - and he wanted them to believe - that he was close to those with power. His continuing receipt of their confidence (and money) depended on his clients' believing he had influence.

In Canada, therefore, he got close to lobbyists who, in turn, were long-time buddies and confidants of prime minister Brian Mulroney, hoping they could move along files of interest to his clients, whether it was Airbus planes or armoured vehicles to be manufactured in Canada. He tried, through them and through rather infrequent contacts with Mr. Mulroney, to exaggerate for the benefit of impressing his German paymasters that he had influence with the powerful in Canada.

When the Chrétien Liberals arrived in office, very quickly he signed up former Liberal bigwig Marc Lalonde to lobby for him, and directed his political energies into wooing Liberal cabinet minister André Ouellet.

Knowing Mr. Schreiber's habits, various Canadian politicians - former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and former Conservative cabinet minister John Crosbie - refused to see him, and ordered their staffs to do likewise.

But Brian Mulroney did not. He saw Mr. Schreiber as prime minister, courtesy of meetings arranged by buddies of his whom Mr. Schreiber had gotten to know and was paying to help further his interests.

Inexplicably, Mr. Mulroney took payment in cash at meetings in hotels in Montreal and New York for ill-defined work on Mr. Schreiber's behalf. He then sat on the cash for almost six years before paying income tax on the money.

There is the law, and there is ethics. What might be legal, sometimes is not ethical. What might be legally defensible, in a hair-splitting or tightly defined way, does not pass a reasonable smell test of proper ethical conduct.

When Mr. Mulroney testified yesterday that he didn't tell investigators about his business dealing with Mr. Schreiber because no one asked, legally he was technically correct - but nothing more.

We live - and Mr. Mulroney lives - in a society where large cash payments trigger automatic suspicions about the intent of those offering and receiving them. We can understand a shadowy figure such as Mr. Schreiber dealing in cash. It is hard to fathom why Mr. Mulroney accepted not one, but three envelopes, with $75,000 in each.

The former prime minister testified again yesterday that he had made a "mistake." Sure, but how could he have made such a "mistake," as a lawyer, a former prime minister and a businessman? It's one thing to have Mr. Schreiber surprise him once with an envelope; it's another to receive two more envelopes and not blow the whistle on his own conduct.

It strained credibility to hear what Mr. Mulroney said he was paid for: to keep a "watching brief" on Mr. Schreiber's attempts to sell armoured personnel carriers to the United Nations and NATO.

Mr. Schreiber never gave Mr. Mulroney instructions, a plan, a strategy or anything, just a few publicity pamphlets about the vehicles.

In other words, the cash was part of a serious business proposition but, more probably, part of Mr. Schreiber's general way of dealing by having friends, sometimes paid friends, in high places, past or present, who might some day be helpful to him.

These are admittedly speculations, since the reasons advanced at the inquiry for the cash payments don't make much logical sense, except as a pattern of sleaze and deception, typical of Mr. Schreiber, unworthy of a former prime minister.

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