Even in his Toronto detention cell, Karlheinz Schreiber must be a happy man. The German-born businessman has waged a decade-long battle against his extradition to Germany and against former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Today, he could think he is winning on both counts.
Yesterday, on the basis of allegations by Schreiber that he had an agreement with Mulroney, made when Mulroney was still in office, to pay him $300,000 in cash for work done after he left office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered a public inquiry. The need to testify before the inquiry could delay yet again Schreiber's departure for Germany to face tax and fraud charges.
A full inquiry has become the one sensible option in a saga that has gone on for too long, muddying the reputation of Mulroney, the office of the prime minister and possibly the country.
It helps that Mulroney himself has asked that the "whole truth [be] finally exposed and tarnished reputations restored." Canadians can certainly sign on to seeing the whole truth exposed. Whether tarnished reputations are restored will depend on what the inquiry determines.
Mulroney has suggested the timeline go back to 1988, the year his government purchased 34 Airbus A-320s. Schreiber, whose credibility has never been his strong point, was paid for acting as an agent for Airbus. Schreiber has never explained what his role was. Nor, unfortunately, has Mulroney ever satisfactorily explained what he did for $300,000 in cash, paid in instalments and on which he delayed paying tax.
Mulroney has said he was too upset to pay taxes on the $300,000 after learning in 1995 that the RCMP had written to the Swiss government that he was suspected of criminal activity in the Airbus contract. Mulroney sued the Liberal government for defamation, winning an apology from the government as well as $2.1 million in costs in 1997 to cover his legal and public-relations fees. But unless Mulroney is in the habit of deferring his tax payments two or three years, his explanation makes no sense. Why would he be upset before the fact?
Schreiber might well be making up allegations out of whole cloth, but there's no denying he has succeeded in casting a pall of suspicion over the Airbus affair and the $300,000 cash payment. His insinuations now extend to a time when Mulroney was in public office.
Harper must ensure the federal government acted correctly in paying $2.1 million once it decided there was no basis for the letter to the Swiss authorities. His original plan of appointing an independent adviser to suggest a possible course of action has been overtaken by Mulroney's demand for a public inquiry. That adviser will now be asked to draft the terms of such an inquiry.
Questions surrounding the Airbus affair have cast a shadow over the reputation of Brian Mulroney for a decade. It's time they were answered.