A dead man, bribery, and see you in court

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Attempting to influence the vote of a member of parliament is a common enough matter. Lobbyists do it for a living. But, offering material incentives, such as paying the expensive premiums on a special life insurance policy only available (and without a medical examination) to a retiring MP — in exchange for a vote — is a whole other affair. If it can be proven, it would constitute a major crime: bribery of a MP.

The Liberal party attack on Conservative leader Stephen Harper is a lot more than the usual "what did you know, and when do you know about it" fishing excursion. It has gone straight to "knew of Conservative bribery" following revelations by Tom Zytaruk, author of a forthcoming biography of Chuck Cadman, that two senior Conservative party operatives offered to pay those life insurance premiums. The premiums were offered in exchange for a vote by the independent MP (stricken with terminal cancer), needed to defeat the budget of the then Paul Martin government, and force an election.

When Zytaruk asked Harper on tape about the incident, as the then leader of the opposition was paying a courtesy call on Donna Cadman following her husband's death, Harper admitted knowledge of a visit by the two men to Cadman, and their offer of financial compensation. In the recording made available, for a fee of $500, by the books publisher, Harper does say he thought Cadman had made up his mind on how he was going to vote, and could not be persuaded to change it. He appears wary of discussing the issue on the record, and obviously wants to leave the impression the discussion was about financial issues having to do with the upcoming election.

Though Dona Cadman, her daughter, and son-in-law, have claimed Chuck Cadman was furious about the insurance premium offer, when the Liberals raised this in the House of Commons, the Conservatives denied an offer was made to influence the budget vote. Rather, the Prime Minister claimed, financial matters were only discussed in relation to Cadman running as a Conservative once again in the next election. Moreover, on Monday, Donna Cadman who has the Conservative nomination to contest her late husband's riding, released a statement in which she absolved Stephen Harper of guilt. When he said he had no knowledge of the insurance policy offer "I knew he was telling the truth, I could see it in his eyes," she stated.

It is hard to believe that at the moment when a dying man, Chuck Cadman, represented a crucial vote in the House of Commons, the Conservatives wanted to talk about his future as a Conservative in the next election campaign, and not the overthrow of the government on the impending budget vote. But it is just as hard to imagine that it can be proven in court Stephen Harper knew, and approved, of a bribe made by two senior Conservatives. The two would have to testify against him for the Prime Minister to be implicated directly.

Harper has replied to Liberal accusations with a notice of intent to sue, naming key Liberals, including leader Dion, deputy leader Michael Ignatieff, and House leader Ralph Goodale, unless an apology is made for the Liberal charge of knowledge of a bribe made on the Liberal party website.

Stéphane Dion has denied any need to apologize.

Suing for an apology was the tactic used successfully by Dion against Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe when the Bloc put out campaign material linking the one-time Liberal environment minister to the infamous "sponsorship scandal" that eventually finished off Paul Martin and his government. In the event, Duceppe issued a public apology to Dion.By suing the Liberals, Conservatives hope to make the Liberals the story, and not the Conservatives. By leveling the charge, the Liberals wanted to change the story from the Liberals support the Conservatives again, to Conservatives guilty of committing a crime.

For Stéphane Dion, the danger is that by implicating the Prime Minister directly he may have over-played his hand, unnecessarily. It would have been enough, initially, to implicate close aides to the Prime Minister, and wait patiently for the right time to tie the scandal to him.

For Harper, the problem is that the research done by Cadman's biographer, and corroborated by the Cadman family, exposes wrongdoing by two Conservatives; and Harper, himself, confirms knowledge of an approach by the two.

If Dion has to climb down, and apologize, it will just be another humiliation, which will make up part of the background, once the next election campaign begins. Harper, on the other hand, faces the indignity of a possible police investigation, and he may well be challenged by the opposition to step aside, until the criminal matter is resolved.

Harper has staked his political future on his leadership capacity being superior to that of Dion. He has a lot riding on his lawsuit gambit, let alone whatever role the RCMP decides to play in investigating the bribery of an MP.

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