Relentless secrecy on payments

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If it had just been that former prime minister Brian Mulroney took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash payments in hotel rooms and failed to report the income for six years, it would be quite a story.

But what makes this saga truly stunning and of vital importance is the fact that the payments were made by the notorious lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, wanted in Germany on charges of corruption, who was paid $20 million by European consortium Airbus to lobby the Mulroney government to buy its jets.

These facts inevitably raise the question of whether the cash payments in hotel rooms are in any way linked to the $1.8 billion airplane deal Schreiber was able to win from Air Canada, then a crown corporation, in 1988.

Mulroney denies any connection at all to Airbus (and he won a $2.1 million settlement and an apology from the Canadian government after it launched an investigation in 1995 implicating him in alleged kickbacks).

Mulroney also insists that he did nothing wrong in accepting cash payments from Schreiber after leaving office in 1993, although he says entering into a business deal with a scoundrel like Schreiber was the "biggest mistake" of his life.

This may be true, but it's beside the point. The issue isn't how much of a snake Schreiber is, but what Mulroney was up to in his dealings with him.

Mulroney's explanation -- that he was providing international consulting services for Schreiber's projects -- has been vague, undocumented and mostly involves dead people who can't corroborate his story. What compounds the problem is Mulroney's relentless secrecy about the cash payments, totaling at least $225,000.

Mulroney not only kept the payments well hidden, squirrelling them away in a safe, but for years attacked anyone who questioned the nature of his relationship with Schreiber.

When the federal government launched its investigation in 1995, Mulroney countered with a lawsuit -- and then concealed from government investigators that he had in fact received some payments from Schreiber.

At the centre of this secrecy is the use of cash, notoriously favoured by those wanting to leave no paper trail.

Mulroney said in his cross-examination last week that he was a little taken aback when Schreiber first presented him with an envelope full of cash, which he found "unusual."

He maintained he could have avoided all his problems if he'd only insisted Schreiber pay him by cheque. The suggestion was that it was the conniving Schreiber with his cash payments who had done Mulroney in.

But commission counsel Richard Wolson caught the former PM off-guard for a moment when he noted that nothing prevented Mulroney from creating his own paper trail -- by depositing the cash in a bank account, reporting it in his files or to his accountants (not to mention to Canadian tax authorities).

The facts of this story -- the ones Mulroney himself has confirmed -- seem so damning on face value that what's needed is a plausible alternative explanation.

But instead Mulroney has offered up years of secrecy and obfuscation. It's hard to avoid wondering just what it is our former prime minister is so keen to hide.

So what's at stake is not the tired question pondered by those caught up in the Great Man theory of history: will Mulroney's "legacy" be tarnished? Rather, something much more important is at stake: do we live in a democracy where those who hold power will truly be held to account?

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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