He destroyed himself. Nobody did it to him. He was simply asked, respectfully, to explain himself. And he could not. If the former prime minister of Canada is now widely suspected of corruption, it’s all his own work.
Brian Mulroney was not on trial before the Oliphant inquiry, nor was the commission counsel, Richard Wolson, his prosecutor. Wolson’s job was simply to test the witness’s story, to see how well it stood up: whether there was any evidence to support it; whether it conflicted with others’; whether there were any internal inconsistencies. But mostly it was to let the witness tell his story. And the more Mulroney talked, the less believable he became.
Indeed, his story started to fall apart under questioning from his own lawyer, in his first two days on the stand. He started by expressing his regret. Was it for taking three payments totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from Karlheinz Schreiber, a notorious international arms dealer and self-admitted briber of politicians? For failing to keep any record of these dealings—no invoices, no receipts, no expenses, no bank accounts, and no tax returns, or none until six years afterwards? For telling a court, in examination for his celebrated 1996 libel suit against the government of Canada, that his relationship with Schreiber amounted to “a cup of coffee . . . once or twice”?
Not as such: it was for the “circumstances” surrounding these “inadequately documented arrangements,” which gave rise to “suspicions as to their propriety.” For the rest, he offered no apology, and no explanation. Or none that made any sense. The reason he had tried to keep the whole business a secret, he maintained, was because of the “enormity” of having been accused of taking kickbacks from Schreiber in a 1995 letter from the Justice Department seeking access to Schreiber’s Swiss bank accounts. The experience had so “scarred” him, he said, that “it explains my conduct in trying to keep private the private commercial contract I entered into after I left office.” He was convinced that, had his dealings with Schreiber come to light, they would have further inflamed the speculation and “innuendo” surrounding him.
That may explain why he did not tell anyone about it in 1995, or at any time from then until 2003, when the story of his dealings with Schreiber first broke. It doesn’t explain why he was acting so furtively in 1993—dealing in cash, keeping no records, not declaring the income, not even telling his own accountant. At that time, no one knew about Schreiber, or the $20 million in secret commissions he’d been paid by Airbus to deliver a $1.8-billion sale of 34 aircraft to Air Canada. By Mulroney’s own account, he knew Schreiber then only as a respectable businessman. So why the cloak-and-dagger act at that time?
Nor does it explain why, to this day, he has failed to give a convincing explanation of what he did for the money, or why he was paid in cash, or why he kept it in cash, or what he was doing having dealings with a man like Schreiber. Mulroney has had six years to come up with a good explanation. He was given six days on the witness stand at the Oliphant inquiry—two with his own lawyer, four under Wolson’s cross-examination. And yet he failed to deliver. It isn’t that he did not perform well: in its own way, it had a certain magnificence. It’s just that he hasn’t got a good story to tell. And so, under oath, he told the inquiry, and the Canadian people, the only story he had. The one that doesn’t stand up.
It isn’t just weak on this point or that. It rings false in just about every respect. His story is improbable, implausible, inconsistent, unsupported by a single document, almost entirely uncorroborated—and contradicted on point after point by people in a position to know the facts. And the more he attempts to rationalize these multiple inconsistencies, the more improbable his story becomes. Where it’s his word against another’s, he denies the exchange took place. Where there are documents to support the other’s account, he has no recollection of them. Where he appears to have given false testimony, it was said in a particular context. Where he contradicts himself, his previous statement was a mistake. Where his own spokesman contradicts him, he was mistaken. And when he can’t do anything else, when he can’t deny, or forget, or fudge, or otherwise explain away incriminating bits of evidence, when we get right down to the rock bottom fact that he took the cash—well, you see, it was an “error of judgment.”
The rest is bitter denunciations of his critics, irrelevant anecdotes about his childhood, long defences of his record, flagrant appeals for pity, attempts to be charming, endless repetition of the same points, the odd tear, the occasional smear. For long stretches during his testimony, you got the feeling that he was trying to talk out the clock. For the rest, he gave every sign of making it up as he went along.
To wit: he did not know Schreiber before he was prime minister, though his former appointments secretary, Pat MacAdam, swears they go way back, and though there is documentary evidence of their contacts. Nor did he know Franz Josef Strauss, the chairman of Airbus—he did not even know Strauss was the chairman of Airbus—though again MacAdam says they were old friends.
He did not know that Schreiber helped bankroll the dump-Clark campaign at the 1983 leadership review. Indeed, he denies that anyone paid to fly in delegates to vote against Clark—though his own official biographer writes of the campaign having “$250,000 in cash” for the purpose.
He had only a “peripheral” relationship with Schreiber through his years in office. Though he met with him at least a dozen times, sometimes on short notice, sometimes in his own home, he has little or no recollection of any of them. Though Schreiber would dutifully write him a letter after each meeting, confirming details of this, assuring him that he would follow up on that, he did not see any of these. Though it appeared Schreiber enjoyed remarkable access to a sitting prime minister, he assured the inquiry that it was no more than he gave to “hundreds of Schreibers.”
Though he was an admitted early supporter of the Bear Head project, a scheme Schreiber was promoting to build armoured vehicles in Nova Scotia, he “killed the deal” when he found out how much it was going to cost—though there is no evidence that he did, though the project did in fact continue, and though the only person he claims to have told to cancel it, his former chief of staff, Norman Spector, denies that he told him any such thing.
He did not know the kind of man Schreiber was—not in 1993, not until his arrest on fraud and tax evasion charges in 1999. Though Schreiber had been the subject of a judicial inquiry in Alberta as long ago as 1981, though Peter Lougheed had ordered his cabinet to have nothing to do with him, though close advisers like Paul Tellier considered him a liar, he knew nothing. Even the 1995 letter of request to the Swiss did nothing to shake his faith in Schreiber’s integrity.
He made no deal with Schreiber until their Aug. 27, 1993, meeting. Schreiber showed up for the meeting with $75,000 in cash—Schreiber’s bank records say $100,000—with no knowledge that Mulroney would agree to anything. He had only a moment’s hesitation about dealing in cash, reasoning that this was the way “international businessmen” from Europe did things. Only later did he discover that the reason they did so was to pay bribes—though the practice had been the subject of intense international publicity since the 1970s, and though he himself had helped spearhead a series of domestic and international anti-money-laundering initiatives. He was not troubled by the optics of agreeing, shortly after leaving office, to represent the Bear Head project on Schreiber’s behalf, having discussed the same project with the same man at length while he was in office.
The “watching brief” to which he agreed was not, as Schreiber maintains, to lobby Canadian governments but foreign ones: to persuade the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to support the purchase of the vehicles for peacekeeping missions. Some of the countries to which he claimed to have made representations, notably China and Russia, have no record of international peacekeeping. Others, France and the U.S., have no record of supporting other countries’ defence industries over their own.
He can cite no living foreign official with whom he discussed the matter—with the possible exception of the Chinese vice-premier—but can offer verbatim recollections of his conversations with dead statesmen. No one else saw him working on the file. Bear Head executives were unaware of it. The Canadian ambassador to China not only says he had no knowledge of it, but that it is inconceivable that he would not: if a former Canadian prime minister were proposing to discuss arms sales with Communist China, the Canadian government would wish to know, and if he had discussed it, the Chinese government would have told him.
And the only witness to support any of it is Fred Doucet—former chief of staff, faithful friend, fellow recipient of Schreiber largesse, and crippled with such massive memory loss on any point that might incriminate him that he could not even offer the name of his own secretary. The same Doucet who was faxing off memos to Schreiber describing precisely how many Airbus planes had been delivered, the day Mulroney was taking his first delivery of cash—Airbus cash, according to forensic accountants who followed the money trail—from Schreiber.
Though Mulroney did not know its provenance, accepting the cash, he now realizes, was a mistake. Yet he accepted not one, but three such payments from Schreiber, over 16 months. And having accepted the cash, he offers no explanation whatever for why he kept it in cash: why he left the money in a safe in his Montreal home, or in a safety deposit box in New York, rather than deposit it in a bank account, where it would earn interest. The closest we got was this gem of a non sequitur:
Q: Why didn’t you put the money in the bank?
A: Well, I brought it home and I left it there.
Nor does he explain why he kept no other records of it. His explanation for why he failed to disclose it on his income tax returns until six years later—that it was a retainer, and as such did not have to be declared until then—conflicts with the reality that it was declared under Revenue Canada’s voluntary disclosure program for late filers. His repeated insistence that he had declared the “full” $225,000, and “paid full tax on it,” is belied by tax records that show he paid tax on only half that amount.
But then, Mulroney is never more opaque than when professing his desire for full disclosure. He justifies his misleading testimony in the 1996 deposition as the literal truth. But he didn’t just tell the court “we had coffee,” and leave it at that. That would be the literal truth, if a partial one. No, he went on to describe the coffees in some detail, even mentioning that Marc Lalonde had done some work for Schreiber, without revealing that he himself had done the same. He says he “would have” answered a direct question on his dealings with Schreiber (the dealings he “had never had,” as he also testified in 1996), if they had asked. But we only have his word for that. And while he also claims he “would have” given the police all of his documents (“anything you need from me, from bank accounts . . . to tax returns to whatever”) if only they had agreed to his offer of “full and complete co-operation,” we know now what his bank accounts and his tax returns would have revealed: nothing.
And we’ve only just covered the highlights! The “fourth article” he claimed the Globe and Mail agreed to publish: there was no such agreement, as he later admitted under Judge Oliphant’s questioning. The “leading political figure from Cape Breton” who was allegedly the intended recipient of the money in the infamous “Britan” account: also false, in the judgment of the forensics.
At some point, we are entitled to conclude Mulroney is not telling us the truth, even now. What he has admitted to—belatedly—is damning enough. But no one believes him even then. And the reason no one believes his story is that it’s so unbelievable.
It took some time. For as long as he refused to tell his story, people were naturally inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. He used that, sought refuge in it, took advantage of it. Even after he told his story the first time, before the Commons ethics committee, you still found a good many people willing to take his “explanation” at face value. As in: he sure showed poor judgment, taking cash from a man like Schreiber. Or: a former prime minister, you’d think he’d have known better. People do not want to believe that a former prime minister of Canada would lie to them, especially under oath. But eventually, especially after this last performance, the reality sinks in: no one has that poor judgment. No one is that naive, least of all Mulroney. After his ethics committee appearance, you still saw TV reporters doing the “ho-ho, Lloyd, it was vintage Mulroney blarney” routine. No one is saying that now.
But do we just leave it at that? If we conclude that Mulroney is telling us a pack of lies, what do we do about it? Or never mind we: supposing Judge Oliphant, in his final report, comes to the same conclusion, even if phrased in more lawyerly language—as in, “Mr. Mulroney’s testimony must be set aside” or “I attach no weight to his evidence.” What then? Anyone who imagines we could just leave it at that—with a former prime minister of Canada found by a judicial inquiry to have lied under oath about a cash deal with an international arms dealer—has not thought this through.
People have to take the next step. They have to ask themselves: if this is the best face he can put on it, how much worse is the reality? If this is his cover story, what on earth is the real story? It’s possible to imagine why he might have lied before—to keep the story from coming out. But now the story has come out. So why would he be lying now? People do not do these kinds of things without a good reason—a reason that makes it worth the risk, not only of loss of reputation, but of possible legal repercussions. And the reasons that come to mind are not appealing.
We have to follow through. We have to confront some unpleasant possibilities. If we conclude he was not paid all that cash to sell peacekeeping vehicles to Boris Yeltsin, we have to ask the next logical question: so what was the money for?