Oliphant on Mulroney and Schreiber: the last official report, perhaps

Richard Wolson isn’t offering Canadians any hope of a satisfying conclusion—ever

Richard Wolson isn’t offering Canadians any hope of a satisfying conclusion—ever—in what must be the longest-running political scandal in the country’s history.

Wolson is the Winnipeg criminal lawyer whose trenchant questioning of witnesses was a big draw during the hearings held by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant is his Commission of Inquiry into Certain Allegations Respecting Business and Financial Dealings Between Karlheinz Schreiber and the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney. (Only the commission’s full name does justice to the interminable, wearying, dispiriting story beneath.)

Oliphant’s report, released earlier today, offers ample confirmation of the conventional view of Mulroney and Schreiber both as two untrustworthy characters—but it doesn’t come close to writing a definitive final chapter to the their sordid saga.

And yet, asked if there should be a another inquiry, Wolson recoiled. He suggested that even before the Oliphant commission, the fact that the RCMP had conducted an eight-year investigation into the matter meant yet more probing would be excessive. This even though the Mounties never got close to the bottom of it.

“I think quite frankly at some point in an investigation—and I don’t speak for any particular party—but at some point we all have a right as Canadians to have finality,” Wolson told a roomful of reporters in Ottawa.

“I’ve been practicing law for 37 years, and I don’t recall seeing very many eight-year investigations. That’s a long period of time by a substantial investigative police service. So I think that after eight years, people are entitled to some deal of finality.”

By “people,” I suppose he must mean mainly Brian Mulroney. Indeed, it’s possible to see the former prime minister as a man long besieged, almost a sympathetic figure.

Almost. But if you’re inclined to view him that way, a read through Oliphant’s statement summarizing his voluminous (three volumes, to be exact, plus a fourth of “independent research studies) report will surely shift you from sympathy back to some less forgiving frame of mind.

The briefest recap, following Oliphant’s version. Schreiber enjoyed increasing access to Mulroney through his years as prime minister, from 1984 to 1993. Among other interests, he was trying to influence the Canadian government to accept a proposal from a German company, Thyssen, to manufacture military vehicles in Canada. Just after Mulroney stepped down as PM, he struck some sort of deal with Schreiber to lobby for Thyssen, accepting three undocumented cash payments, totaling either $225,000 (as Mulroney claims) or $300,000 (according to Schreiber).

Oliphant repeatedly expressed doubts about Mulroney’s trustworthiness in his testimony about the whole messy business.

Firstly, Mulroney told the commission he lobbied world leaders on behalf of Thyssen, but Oliphant concludes that he “must view with skepticism Mr. Mulroney’s claim” on that score.

Secondly, Mulroney said taking the cash and failing to keep any record of the transaction was a simply an error in judgment, but Oliphant confesses to “having a considerable problem with that explanation.”

And, thirdly, Mulroney said he failed to disclose the payments when he was asked about his relationship with Schreiber by federal lawyers, way back in 1996, because he wasn’t asked exactly the right question, but Oliphant finds that excuse “patently absurd.”

In other words, Oliphant doesn’t accept Mulroney’s version of what he did for Schreiber, why he conducted his business in such a clandestine fashion, and why he didn’t come clean about it. Doesn’t all that add up—to get back to the question put to Wolson today—to the need for further inquiry?

Wolson clearly doesn’t think it would be fair or, perhaps, worth the effort. He comes across as a practical man of the law, and not—if his past service on commissions that dug into old injustices is any guide—inclined to give up too easily. If he’s right, though, that doesn’t necessarily make it feel right.

Oliphant concludes that the relationship Mulroney had with Schreiber was “inappropriate.” Well, no kidding. But why would Mulroney go to such lengths to hide it, even long after he was out of power, if it was merely unseemly? Today’s report doesn’t offer a clear answer.

As well, there’s something not quite consistent in Oliphant’s description of Schreiber’s place in Mulroney’s circle, something that leaves me wondering.

“While Mr. Schreiber was testifying before me, I was struck by his proclivity for exaggeration as he described the nature of his relationships with people,” Oliphant said, “particularly those in positions of influence and power.” And a little later: “To put it bluntly, I hold the view that Mr. Schreiber is deluding himself if he believes that Mr. Mulroney was ever a close friend.”

It’s comforting, no doubt, to imagine that Schreiber, now serving an eight-year sentence in his native Germany for tax evasion, exaggerated his relationships with the powerful and was deluded about their friendships. Seen that way, he doesn’t seem to represent much more than distraction.

However, Oliphant goes on to observe that Mulroney’s old pal Fed Doucet would arrange a session with the then-prime minister “whenever Mr. Schreiber wanted to meet him.” And Oliphant dismisses Mulroney’s description of Schreiber as a “peripheral” figure, saying “in my view their relationship was much more than peripheral.”

What are we to make of this? Schreiber exaggerates his insider status, but he could meet the PM whenever he liked. Schrieber is deluded about Mulroney’s friendship, but Mulroney is disingenuous in describing Schreiber as a man on the periphery.

Wolson might be right that it’s too late for another attempt to arrive at a definitive understanding of this whole messy business. But as for the final word, it’s hard to imagine we heard it today.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.