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Former prime minister Brian Mulroney poses alongside his portrait after its unveiling on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2002.

TOM HANSON/CP

Brian Mulroney failed to disclose the truth about his commercial relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber during pretrial hearings in his $50-million defamation lawsuit against the Canadian government. Mr. Justice Jeffrey Oliphant of Manitoba made that finding this week, after studying the transcripts and giving Mr. Mulroney an opportunity to explain his point of view.

The former prime minister settled that lawsuit out of court for $2.1-million in 1997. It is possible the result would have been different if Mr. Mulroney had been more candid.

The lawsuit was over a letter from the Canadian government to Swiss authorities, later leaked to the media, alleging that Mr. Mulroney had been involved in criminal activity connected to Mr. Schreiber. Mr. Mulroney exercised the right of any citizen to sue over allegations that, as he put it, "had the capacity to destroy me, my family, my father's good name and the legacy of my government."

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In the pretrial hearings, a government lawyer, Claude-Armand Sheppard, asked Mr. Mulroney about whether he maintained contact with Mr. Schreiber when he was no longer prime minister. Mr. Mulroney replied that he had met with him once or twice for a cup of coffee. At the Oliphant Inquiry, Mr. Mulroney explained his answer by saying that Mr. Sheppard had not asked him directly about a commercial relationship.

Judge Oliphant used the strongest language of his report in rejecting Mr. Mulroney's explanation: "In his answer [to Mr. Sheppard] Mr. Mulroney failed to disclose the true state of affairs … . For Mr. Mulroney to attempt to justify his failure to make disclosure in those circumstances by asserting that Mr. Sheppard did not ask the correct question is, in my view, patently absurd. It was not Mr. Sheppard's question that was problematic; rather, it was Mr. Mulroney's answer to the question."

It cannot be known how that lawsuit would have ended if Mr. Mulroney had accurately described the $225,000 or more in payments he had received, and the manner in which he received them - in cash-stuffed envelopes in hotel rooms, to be deposited in safety deposit boxes in Montreal and New York, with no paper record of any form. Richard Wolson, the counsel for the Oliphant Inquiry, suggested that if Mr. Mulroney had told of the cash payments and circumstances, it would have "absolutely fuelled the already raging fire of suspicion that was out there." Mr. Mulroney agreed.

On a matter germane to his lawsuit, Mr. Mulroney failed to disclose the truth. That is not a small failure. When he tabled an ethics code for public-office holders in the House of Commons in 1985, he said the standard was "above all, to be guided by the highest standards of conduct." He fell short.

The onus is now on Mr. Mulroney. Only he can repair some of the damage he has done to his reputation.

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