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German-Canadian arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber arrives at the prison in the Bavarian town of Augsburg, August 3, 2009. (ALEXANDRA BEIER)
German-Canadian arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber arrives at the prison in the Bavarian town of Augsburg, August 3, 2009. (ALEXANDRA BEIER)

Harper's gamble Add to ...

Stephen Harper first learned about the cash-stuffed envelopes Karlheinz Schreiber had handed to Brian Mulroney along with the rest of us, when The Globe and Mail broke the story in 2003. I'm convinced of that, having seen the reaction on his face a few days later when I met him in Victoria.

Yet, for four years, he had nothing to say about what even Mr. Mulroney now says was a mistake and an error in judgement. He appeared at public events along with Mr. Mulroney and began to look upon his Conservative predecessor as a mentor, especially on issues related to Québec.

That all changed in 2007, when Mr. Harper received a letter from Mr. Schreiber containing allegations that drew his office into the scandal. Then, in contrast to the Liberals' silence under Paul Martin, the Official Opposition under Stéphane Dion jumped on the issue and demanded a public inquiry. Under pressure, Mr. Harper finally succumbed; however, as the report in this morning's Globe makes clear, the public inquiry established under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Jeffrey Oliphant looked "into the cash that Mr. Schreiber gave to Mr. Mulroney, but not the deal that earned Mr. Schreiber most of his riches - the 1988 purchase of $1.8-billion in Airbus planes by then-Crown corporation Air Canada."

The narrow mandate was suggested to the Prime Minister by David Johnston, now principal of the University of Waterloo, who was appointed in the 1980s to a position reporting directly to Mr. Mulroney by the former prime minister. In his report to Mr. Harper, Dr. Johnston stated that the Airbus investigation was well-tilled ground and that the RCMP had known about the cash payments to Mr. Mulroney when it shut down its investigation. William Kaplan, who broke the story in the Globe, disputes that, based on an interview with the lead RCMP investigator, Sgt. Al Matthews.

Be that as it may, during his hearings, Mr. Oliphant shut down any questioning related to the Airbus transaction even when there were some tantalizing leads, based on the mandate that he had been given by the Harper government. And, even within its restricted mandate, the Commission on several occasion pulled its punches.

For example, Canadians never learned the details of the one private meeting between Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney, after chief commission counsel Richard Wolson accepted Mr. Schreiber's assurance that it had nothing to do with the matters before the Commission. During my testimony, I was not asked about an important discrepancy between Mr. Mulroney's testimony in 1996 and his testimony before the Oliphant Commission. Nor did Commission counsel choose to explore discussions among lawyers for Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber over the years.

For some people, then, questions will remain even after Mr. Oliphant submits his report at the end of the year. However, with Mr. Schreiber now out of the country, it's unlikely that they will ever be answered.

On CBC yesterday, Fifth Estate producer Harvey Cashore, who's been on the Airbus case virtually since the beginning, expressed a contrary view; namely, that he still expects Karlheinz Schreiber to make some chess moves from his prison in Germany. Translated, this means that Mr. Cashore is hoping to be on the receiving end of paper that Mr. Schreiber did not bring to Canada and/or that may help him in his trial there. Notably, Mr. Cashore made his statement from Germany.

Personally, I'm dubious, and I'm also dubious that we'll ever find out what Mr. Schreiber did with the $20-million in commissions that he earned from the sale of Airbus planes to Air Canada. However, I wouldn't rule out Mr. Cashore's thesis completely, as it's never been clear to me how Mr. Schreiber's strategy of dripping information would keep him in Canada past a certain point.

Had Stephen Harper wanted to find out where those commissions ended up, he could have offered Mr. Schreiber a deal: tell all and, if you have the information you say you have, we'll allow you to remain in Canada. Instead, Mr. Harper and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who was an MP in Mr. Mulroney's caucus, used the opportunity afforded by a long weekend to get Mr. Schreiber out of the country.

Mr. Harper and Mr. Nicholson will now be able to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of the Conservatives' election sweep, planned for Montréal on September 18th. Michael Ignatieff, having ditched this Dion policy too - choosing instead to scorn Mr. Harper for failing to wish Mr. Mulroney a happy 70th birthday - will have to bite his tongue on both the extradition and the anniversary party. Mr. Harper, though, had better keep his fingers crossed that Mr. Cashore's theory about Mr. Schreiber's chess-playing skills comes to naught.

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