Ottawa has to pay $200,000 in legal costs incurred by Jean Chrétien in his fight to restore his name after the Gomery inquiry placed part of the blame for the sponsorship scandal on his shoulders in 2005.
The ruling by the Federal Court constitutes the third straight victory for the former prime minister and Liberal leader in his efforts to clear his reputation, but the Conservative government called it “disappointing.”
In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office argued the money rightly belongs to taxpayers, who lost millions as a result of waste and fraud in the sponsorship program that was created by the Liberals after the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
“We call on Jean Chrétien to give this $200,000 back to taxpayers on behalf of the Liberal Party,” PMO spokesman Carl Vallée told The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Chrétien refused to comment on the matter, although some of his supporters said the statement was pure provocation. But the Harper Conservatives have a bone to pick with Mr. Chrétien, who recently released a fundraising letter on behalf of the Liberal Party in which he warned that the government is seeking to reopen debates on hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
There was also no comment on the issue of legal costs from John Gomery, the former judge who came down hard on Mr. Chrétien for his role in establishing the scandal-plagued sponsorship program.
Mr. Chrétien’s reputation was clearly tarnished by the final report of the Gomery inquiry, which stated he created a program that was secretive and circumvented normal administrative safeguards.
However, the former prime minister convinced the Federal Court in 2008 to strike out the negative findings against him, arguing that Mr. Gomery, through a series of public comments during the hearings, showed a clear bias. The Federal Court of Appeal later upheld the ruling, and last week, the Federal Court ruled in Mr. Chrétien’s favour on the issue of legal costs, forcing Ottawa to cover half of Mr. Chrétien’s total legal bill.
In his ruling, Mr. Justice François Lemieux decided to award five times more money than Ottawa was offering because of the high stakes at play.
“The appeal concerned the reputation of a former prime minister of Canada and the proper conduct of federal commissions of public inquiry. These were important and complex issues of public importance,” Judge Lemieux said.
Mr. Justice Max Teitelbaum of Federal Court ordered in 2008 that all sections of Mr. Gomery’s report dealing with Mr. Chrétien and his former chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, be considered “void.”
It was a sweet victory for Mr. Chrétien, who had chafed under Mr. Gomery's characterization of him as “small-town cheap,” and insisted his legacy was being unfairly tarnished.
Mr. Gomery's chief sin, according to Judge Teitelbaum, was a preoccupation with the media spotlight that led him to give interviews he should have eschewed, make comments that indicated he judged issues before all evidence was heard, exhibited bias against Mr. Chrétien and trivialized the inquiry proceedings.
Mr. Pelletier, who is now deceased, also received $200,000 in legal costs, to be provided to his estate.