Globe and Mail reporter Daniel Leblanc started investigating what would become the massive federal sponsorship scandal with a simple access-to-information request and a healthy curiousity about federal advertising.
But, as he reveals in his new book, an anonynous tipster played a vital role in uncovering the full depth of the scandal.
Mr. Leblanc was on-line Thursday to answer questions from readers about the sponsorship scandal, the Gomery inquiry, his new book and investigative journalism. Your questions and Mr. Leblanc's answers appear at the bottom of the page.
Daniel Leblanc has been a parliamentary correspondent at The Globe and Mail since 1998. He started investigating the sponsorship program in 1999. Along with his colleague Campbell Clark, he won the Michener Award for public service in journalism in 2004.
Mr. Leblanc is the author of Nom de code: MaChouette, a new book that tells the inside story behind the investigation and, for the first time, reveals the role played by anonymous and confidential sources in exposing the sponsorship scandal.
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Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: Welcome Mr. Leblanc, and welcome to everyone joining us on-line today. There are plenty of questions for Mr. Leblanc, so without further ado we'll get right to it.
Ranald Walton, Hamilton: Thank you sir, for your work in uncovering "Canada's Watergate." Do you think any Liberal former Cabinet Ministers will see jail time as a result of this horrendous scandal?
Daniel Leblanc: Thank you Mr. Walton for your question, and to everyone else who is sitting in on this session.
The issue of further criminal charges is indeed on many people's minds, given that the RCMP started investigating the individuals involved with the sponsorship program in 2002. Three people so far have been found guilty of fraud in the matter, including former bureaucrat Chuck Guité who is appealing his own conviction. And there are news reports of other charges in the works. Whether there will be charges against former politicians, however, is a hard one.
What I think we can learn from the past is that the RCMP can, with relative ease, force the heads of advertising firms to plead guilty in this matter. Both Paul Coffin and Jean Brault admitted to wrongdoing when they were presented with evidence that they overcharged the government for their work on the sponsorship program. In addition, there were few questions about their motives, which involved putting money in their pockets.
The case of Mr. Guité was different, given that his motive was less clear in regards to his role in allowing Groupaction Marketing Inc. to commit fraud. Nonetheless, a jury came to the conclusion that Mr. Guité, too, was guilty in this case. I think the case of political or Liberal officials is even murkier, and tougher to transform into concrete evidence before a jury. I think the challenge for the RCMP is to come up with evidence that is stronger than simply putting an adman on the stand and stating that this was a case of political interference. Because as far as I can tell, the potential witnesses who could engage in this testimony would have credibility problems.
Patrick Johnston, Toronto: Thank you, Daniel. Canada would be better served if there were more investigative journalists like you. I wonder, however, if there hasn't been an over-reaction to the sponsorship scandal? Federal public servants, as hard working as many of them are, have not generally been known for their innovation, creativity or willingness to take risks. My recent encounters with federal officials suggest that they are more cautious and bureaucratic than ever before. Many seem to be cowed by the Auditor General. Not only are they less likely to take risks, they seem even less likely to engage the public for fear of mis-stepping or making a mistake. Surely, this isn't the path to better governance? Are we in the process of stifling any innovation or creativity on the part of federal civil servants as the price to be paid for minimizing future scandals?
Daniel Leblanc: I think you make an important point, Mr. Johnston, which is to not overreact to the sponsorship scandal, yet take measures to make sure it doesn't happen again.
First off, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser made the point clearly that the problems did not originate because of an absence of rules and regulations, but because these rules and regulations were not applied. Chuck Guité and his successor, Pierre Tremblay, had an extraordinary amount of power in managing the sponsorship program, with no other bureaucrat in place to supervise their work between 1996 and 2000.
Mr. Guité, for example, oversaw the creation of lists of advertising firms eligible to work on the sponsorship program. Then he picked the firms on that list to determine which ones would get the work, including which ones would have access to the most lucrative deals. Then he received the invoices from those firms and approved them. All in all, it was a recipe for disaster. Does anyone in a big company in the private sector have that kind of unsupervised signing authority?
However, Mr. Guité's situation is, as far as I know, not replicated anywhere else in government.
In that context, many people in government argue that the current situation is stifling. However, it is a pendulum, as the cliché goes, and it will come back to an appropriate level.
J. McElligott, Calgary: The sponsorship debacle was a critical factor in determining the government we have today. However, after all the uproar, I am still unclear as to what extent the Liberal Party of Canada has formally acknowledged its role in the affair, and more particularly, what money or benefits, if any, it acknowledges to have received. More importantly, has any money been repaid by the LPC? I recall a series of lofty, but profoundly conditional and ambiguous undertakings, but no unequivocal acceptance of responsibility.
Daniel Leblanc: The Liberal Party of Canada has suffered the steepest price for a political party, which is losing an election. I won't pretend for a second that the sponsorship scandal was the only reason for that situation, but it obviously contributed, especially in Quebec.
In addition, the Liberal Party did repay more than $1-million to the government, although it was the Liberal government of Paul Martin that accepted that amount as the rightful one. The Conservative Party would wanted more money, but in my view, it was a clear acceptance that something wrong had occurred.
Elmo Harris, Niagara, Canada: The opposition parties have characterized the Liberal Party as corrupt because of the events surrounding the sponsorship scandal. Is this a fair characterization of all members of the Liberal Party or was this a misguided scheme of just a few people with ties to the Liberal Party? Did any Liberal politicians receive any financial benefit from the sponsorship program?
Daniel Leblanc: Thanks for the question, Mr. Harris, which raises an interesting issue.
What I think is important to point out is that when the sponsorship scandal gained national prominence in 2004, many Liberals were arguing that it was the work of corrupt bureaucrats and admen. Then it became an issue of "rogue" Liberals or a "parallel" group inside the Liberal Party.
However, as the Gomery inquiry showed, the people involved in illicit cash transactions in the Liberal Party were high-ranking officials, including two one-time director-generals of the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party of Canada. In addition, two "bagmen" who were linked to cash transactions were official fundraisers for the Liberal Party.
Regarding the question whether politicians received financial benefits, there is no proof of any elected official being engaged in such illicit activity. However, the opposition parties have argued that the Liberal Party received electoral benefits from the sponsorship scandal, given that some of the "dirty money" was used to fight elections, particularly against Bloc Québécois candidates in Quebec.
Shirley Verinder, Winnipeg: Whatever happened to Alain Richard, the former Groupaction VP who was threatened and had to leave Canada for his own safety?
Daniel Leblanc: I am not aware of Mr. Richard's whereabouts, but he is still involved in sending emails and information to a number of reporters denouncing various irregularities involving advertising firms that had close ties to the previous Liberal government.
Pete Diamant, Canada: The most recent Environics poll shows that support for sovereignty has risen dramatically (to 52%) since the Conservative win (34%). The Conservatives had little to do with the sponsorship disgrace. Is the lack of credibility of the Liberals as well as the Conservative stance on military buildup and disregard for environmental issues pushing this country towards partition? Is the only hope reopening the nationhood issue?
Daniel Leblanc: I think that in the current situation, with a Liberal government in Quebec City, the issue of sovereignty remains hypothetical, and it is harder to gauge the exact level of support in the province.
The upcoming elections at the federal and the provincial levels - maybe in the spring in both cases - will be of great significance. In that context, it will be interesting to see who is the federal leader if André Boisclair and the Parti Québécois form the next government.
R. Carriere, Maritimes: Mr. Leblanc: Congratulations and thank you for putting government on notice that cheating and stealing will mostly be uncovered! Although ad agencies and lesser players like Chuck Guité have been handed sentences, it wouldn't take a giant intellect to know that this "program" and its kickbacks were organized at a much higher level. That stated, has the RCMP investigation ended concerning political figures including Chrétien, Carle, and friends? If so, why?
Daniel Leblanc: The RCMP line is that the investigations are "ongoing." I have never heard of the police asking questions about former prime minister Jean Chrétien or his former senior aide Jean Carle. However, I know they have asked questions about other former Liberal supporters.
John Hinkley, Thornhill: Do you expect more to come on the sponsorship scandal? My personal feelings are that those in the know within the federal Liberal party have purposely stayed out of the current leadership race due to such expectations.
Daniel Leblanc: My personal view on this, having followed the situation since 1999, is that most everybody who was a big player in the sponsorship scandal has been identified in one way or another in media stories and at the Gomery inquiry.
What is still to come is the identity of the people who will face new charges of fraud. Media reports in Quebec state that there are likely five people in that situation.
For the patient ones among us, 2008 is an important date, because that is when the federal government's civil lawsuits against firms that made millions of dollars through the sponsorship program will start being heard in court. Over all, Ottawa is hoping to recuperate $60-million. However, whatever decision is made in 2008 or 2009 on the issue, one can expect it will be appealed, once again testing our patience.
Jim Reekie, Canada: I have always been curious about the magnitude of the cost over-runs on the gun registry. From what I have read most of these over-runs have been attributed to consulting fees. Do you think the Liberal party had a pattern of abuse which they would have surfaced in other programs such as the gun registry, or do you think their activities in this regard were limited only to the sponsorship program? Let me say that as a Canadian citizen I am deeply grateful for your diligence in uncovering this almost unfathomable abuse of public trust.
Daniel Leblanc: The situation of the gun registry comes up quite often when we speak of the sponsorship scandal. One of the points that I make in that situation is that as far as I know, there was something unique about sponsorships, and that is the kickbacks to Liberal officials. So far, nothing of this sort has been revealed in the case of the gun registry, or most other government boondoggles. Indeed, the sponsorship scandal was smaller in terms of dollars, but it is where some of those dollars ended up that made it such a big issue.
Tom Lang, Montreal: Hey Daniel answer this one! Who did you vote for in the last election? Here let me guess first, Conservative right! It's funny how you seem to take a guy's word for what happened when he himself has been charged and convicted of fraud.
Daniel Leblanc: Thanks for the question, though I do not think that my voting record is in any way relevant to the point that you make.
The Auditor-General and the RCMP certainly felt that it was worth investigating the sponsorship scandal, given the AG issued two reports on the matter and the RCMP has charged four people with fraud. I do not think one should expect the media to ignore this matter.
Regarding the credibility of Jean Brault, indeed, one should always question the motives of someone in his situation who is implicating others in a kickback scheme. However, his testimony was believed by Judge John Gomery and backed up by a number of facts.
In addition, does anyone dispute the testimony of the former Liberal director general for Quebec, Michel Béliveau, who cried after explaining how he accepted $300,000 in cash in 1997 from Jacques Corriveau, without issuing a receipt.
Francis Nixon, Ottawa:Mr. Leblanc, thanks for taking time out to answer questions. Mine is straightforward: do you think it would be appropriate to call the actions of the Parti Quebecois, who so vehemently attacked the scandal as an insult to Quebecers' intelligence by trying to get to them to "buy Canada," hypocritical? After all, while in government, did the PQ not use government funds in order to promote their vision for separatism, particularly in the run-up to the 1995 referendum?
Daniel Leblanc: It is indeed hard to ignore the fact that there is so much hypocrisy in politics, at all levels. I started writing my book on the sponsorship scandal immediately after the last election, and I was shocked upon my return on the Hill in September to see how fast the Liberals were attacking Conservative patronage appointments. As if the Liberals had never engaged in any favouritism during their years in power.
Regarding your question, I am repeating a point that I made earlier, but what was different about sponsorships was the "kickback scheme," as identified by Judge Gomery. There is no doubt that if ever a similar scheme can be shown to have existed in relation to any political party, at the provincial or the federal stage, the media will be all over it.
Neil DeVries, Beamsville: Mr. Leblanc, Canadians owe you a big thanks, first for uncovering the greed and self-deserving attitude of the Liberals as well as allowing the Conservatives to grasp power (no matter how loose a grip it now seems). That being said, how gullible and how forgiving are Canadians and especially Quebecers? I couldn't see myself voting for them in the first place, but after the sponsorship scandal, I couldn't fathom voting for ANY party that did that. Next, do you think that when the next leader is chosen for the Liberal party this will be over for the Liberals?
Daniel Leblanc: All political parties have baggage when they leave office, and it does take time to get rid of it. The most recent polls, which suggest the next government will also be a minority, show that Canadians have yet to decide whether they want to keep the current Conservative government, or go back to the Liberals. There are still interesting times ahead of us.
Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to everyone who submitted comments and joined us on-line, and thanks to Mr. Leblanc for taking the time to answer reader questions today. Daniel, any closing thoughts?
Daniel Leblanc: I would like to thank everyone who participated in this exercise, which was a first for me. I hope that my new book on the scandal, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at the media investigation into the matter, will be available in English in the spring. For those who read French, it is called Nom de code: MaChouette. It was named after the pseudonym that was used by the whistleblower who first informed me of the scandal behind the sponsorship program in 2000.
Have a good day.