Jean Chrétien claimed vindication yesterday as the Federal Court quashed the Gomery inquiry's conclusions that the former prime minister and his top aide bore responsibility for the sponsorship scandal.
Ruling that retired judge John Gomery's public comments and newspaper interviews showed bias, and that he prejudged the issues before the hearings closed, Federal Court Justice Max Teitelbaum ordered that all sections of his 2005 fact-finding report dealing with Mr. Chrétien and his former chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, be considered "void."
It was sweet victory for a former prime minister 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.
The ruling has no practical consequence, except for ordering the government to pay legal costs, because Mr. Gomery's fact-finding report was just that - a report, not a court ruling. But for Mr. Chrétien and his former aide, it revised a chapter of history.
Mr. Chrétien's lawyers and former aides said the decision means the record now indicates the scandal was the result of the actions of "minor players in the [Liberal]Party" and not directed by the Prime Minister's Office.
"He is obviously very gratified and very happy. It's a total vindication of Mr. Chrétien and of Mr. Pelletier," said Eddie Goldenberg, a long-time senior aide.
Mr. Goldenberg reignited the bitter war with Mr. Chrétien's successor, Paul Martin, whom Mr. Chrétien's camp blames for launching the inquiry in the first place.
He said Mr. Martin, who fired Mr. Pelletier from his job as president of Via Rail, should show "some simple decency" by publicly apologizing to him now, when he is ailing from cancer. "I would hope that something like that would help restore Mr. Pelletier's health because we all wish him long life," Mr. Goldenberg said.
Mr. Martin did not reply, and a spokesman, who spoke on the condition he not be named, said he never will.
He said in an e-mail that Mr. Martin wishes Mr. Pelletier the best of health, but that he was not dismissed over the sponsorship scandal but because he broke a whistleblower policy by criticizing Olympic athlete Myriam Bédard, who alleged abuses at Via.
In his fact-finding report, issued in 2005, Mr. Gomery concluded there was no evidence that Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Pelletier were involved in wrongdoing, but they bore responsibility.
He wrote that Mr. Chrétien created a secretive program, run by Mr. Pelletier out of the Prime Minister's Office, which circumvented normal administrative safeguards. Mr. Pelletier provided political input to mid-level civil servant Chuck Guité, and they should have known the program was subject to abuse, Mr. Gomery concluded.
Yesterday's decisions from the Federal Court did not turn on whether Mr. Gomery assessed the evidence correctly.
It turned on whether he treated Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Pelletier fairly.
"The comments made by the commissioner, viewed cumulatively, not only indicate that he prejudged issues, but also that the commissioner was not impartial toward [Mr. Chrétien]" Judge Teitelbaum ruled.
In an interview in December, 2004, Mr. Gomery said he was "coming to the same conclusion as [Auditor-General]Sheila Fraser that this was a government program which was run in a catastrophically bad way."
While Mr. Gomery argued he had heard enough in three months to indicate that officials at least had mismanaged the sponsorship program, Judge Teitelbaum said he should not have prejudged before all the evidence about civil servants and politicians was in.
His comment halfway through the hearings that "juicy stuff" was yet to come made it appear evidence of wrongdoing was expected before it was heard, and his remark that golf balls that bore Mr. Chrétien's signature were "small-town cheap" was a personal insult, Judge Teitelbaum added.
"I know that at the end of the day what hurt Mr. Chrétien were those comments, 'small-town cheap,' " Senator Jim Munson, who was the former prime minister's communications director, said yesterday.
Mr. Gomery told The Canadian Press that he did not agree with Judge Teitelbaum's conclusions, but said it is up to the government to decide whether to appeal.
"I can't say it's agreeable to be criticized at this point by another judge," he said.
Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney said there was enough evidence on the record for Canadians to draw their own conclusions. Mr. Chrétien still bears political responsibility for a scandal on his watch, he said.
"The buck had to stop somewhere. And by the way, 40 million of those bucks went missing," Mr. Kenney said. "The creation of the sponsorship program was the result of a direct political decision by him. Close friends of his benefited financially from this, and powerful Liberals associated with him."