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Deflective, garrulous yet wriggly

Mulroney was able to evade the only issue that mattered

From Friday's Globe and Mail

I have been covering trials - and lengthy hearings such as coroner's inquests and royal commissions - for more than 25 years. In all that time, I have seen hundreds of witnesses cross-examined and probably, dozens of accused men and women.

I have never seen such a one as Brian Mulroney yesterday, being questioned by Richard Wolson, a lawyer from Winnipeg whose pauses alone are terrifying.

To my untrained but jaundiced eye, the former Canadian prime minister, a lawyer himself, was fulsome-seeming while persistently deflective, garrulous yet wriggly and, on the central issue and the only one that matters to most of his countrymen - why did he keep that loot he got from Karlheinz Schreiber a secret? - he was like a surgeon who gravely admits removing the wrong limb, defends his work as technically flawless but for that one thing, and expects to be congratulated by the patient for his skill.

Thirteen years ago, when Mr. Mulroney was suing the Canadian government for wrongly labelling him a criminal in the Airbus affair, he testified under oath in a Quebec court in a procedure comparable to what's called "examination in discovery" in other provinces.

The former PM had launched the lawsuit after the RCMP sent a letter to Switzerland alleging he and Mr. Schreiber had accepted kickbacks in the government's purchase of Airbus planes.

After Mr. Mulroney testified, the government apologized and covered $2.1-million of his legal costs.

But in that testimony, Mr. Mulroney never mentioned that he was involved in what he insists was a legitimate "commercial relationship" with the same Mr. Schreiber - albeit a curiously ill-defined one, without contracts or records or even a definition of what it was Mr. Mulroney would do for him in a vague "international mandate" - or that he had met him twice in hotels and once in a café and each time walked away with an envelope containing $75,000 in cash.

Back then, when the lead government lawyer, Claude-Armand Sheppard, asked if he'd maintained contact with Mr. Schreiber after he left the prime minister's office, Mr. Mulroney replied that they "would have a cup of coffee, I think, once or twice."

This is the nub of it, and was for Mr. Wolson yesterday.

If, Mr. Wolson suggested, Mr. Mulroney had disclosed the payments, "it would have absolutely fuelled the already raging fire of suspicion that was out there"?

"I don't doubt it," Mr. Mulroney said, "but that question was never asked."

Mr. Wolson tried again, asking, "You had more than a cup of coffee, you had a cup of coffee and you picked up $75,000?" "Yes," said Mr. Mulroney, "but what was the question to which I was responding?"

"It's more than coffee," Mr. Wolson said on another occasion. "You may have a cup of coffee, but the essence of the meeting is more than coffee."

"It might have been the essence of me being there, but it wasn't the essence of the question," Mr. Mulroney said.

Besides, he said, he and his lawyers had made an approach before this, "had tried to provide all the information to them, the government dismissed [his lawyer] in a very cavalier manner. I had offered to go to Ottawa, bring every document, answer any question they wanted and they turned us down flat ... what they did was not indicate any desire to find out the truth or settle, they kept hiring more and more lawyers."

Mr. Wolson pointed out that while Mr. Mulroney's team had offered to bring his bank accounts in the search for truth, the money from Mr. Schreiber "would have been absent" because, as the lawyer said a little later, "The money was put, not in bank accounts but in safes, squirrelled away; there was no documentation, there is no evidence of it except for you, and you weren't talking, Mr. Schreiber, and he at that time wasn't talking, and Mr. Doucet [Fred Doucet, a former aide to Mr. Mulroney and an old friend] and he certainly wasn't talking."

How on Earth, Mr. Wolson asked, would the lawyers have known to ask about money no one knew about?

"Do you accept the fact that in these circumstances that there was an entirely appropriate vehicle for him [Mr. Sheppard] to ascertain this?" Mr. Mulroney asked.

"Ask me the question and I'll give you the truthful answer.

"I was not, I think it fair for me to say this, I was not asked any question as simple as the following - 'Alright, Mr. Mulroney, you had this stuff, you were back in business, you have to earn a living, did you have a commercial relationship of any kind with Mr. Schreiber?'

"The answer would have been 'Yes,' ", he said. "I would have described it in detail. I received no such question."

Mr. Wolson said, "And it seems to me sir, with due respect, when you tell the examiner [Mr. Sheppard] 'I met him once or twice for coffee,' the examiner would, I think, properly understand, coming from a former prime minister of Canada, that when you answer 'I met him once or twice for coffee,' that was it?"

"No sir," the former PM said. "In regard to a direct question, 'Did you maintain contact with him?', 'Yes I did, I met him once or twice for coffee,' that was the maintenance of the contact.

"What about the next question? 'Alright, in the course of those contacts did you develop anything?'

"There was no such question. From the nine of them, sitting there, and taking me on all day long for almost two days. There are hundreds of questions. Not once did they ever raise the question you and I are considering now."

That, of course, is because Mr. Wolson, coming into the Oliphant commission, already knew about the envelopes of cash; poor Mr. Sheppard never had that advantage.

The day wore on, and at some point near the end, when he was suggesting that at a certain stage Mr. Mulroney must have had an idea of what Karlheinz Schreiber was really like, Mr. Wolson shrugged and said, "Look, you've seen the way Mr. Schreiber does business..."

The same could be said for Mr. Mulroney, the man who, to borrow from the English writer Samuel Butler, "could distinguish and divide a hair 'twixt south and southwest side, on either which he would dispute, Confute, change hands, and still confute."

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