After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, my reaction was that if I were ever accused of a serious crime, I would like to have a defence lawyer like Simpson's Johnnie Cochran.
And yesterday, after reading the report of retired judge Bernard Grenier's investigation into Option Canada, my reaction was that since I couldn't afford a lawyer like the late Cochran, I would like to be tried by a judge like Grenier.
Option Canada was alleged to be a secret slush fund set up by Ottawa to outspend the sovereignist side in the 1995 referendum campaign, in violation of Quebec law.
After the allegation was made last year in a book by sovereignist hard-liners Normand Lester and Robin Philpot (the latter an unsuccessful Parti Quebecois candidate in the March 26 election), Quebec's chief electoral officer, Marcel Blanchet, appointed Grenier to investigate.
In Grenier, federalists have finally found their Pierre-F. Cote. Cote was the chief electoral officer at the time of the 1995 referendum who minimized the significance of the rejection of valid No votes by sovereignist polling officials on the ground only a few voters had their votes stolen.
Lester and Philpot alleged Option Canada illegally spent $5.2 million during the referendum campaign, in addition to $5.1 million the official No committee was allowed to spend.
Grenier found of the $11.1 million spent by Option Canada and its parent organization, the now defunct Canadian Unity Council, before and during the 1995 campaign, only "about $539,460" was spent illegally. That's the equivalent of 11 per cent of the legal limit.
But Grenier further whittled down the significance of the violation. Since the official No committee spent $375,963 less than the legal limit, he reasoned, the federalist side benefitted from only $163,497 in illegal expenditures that couldn't have been made legally.
So federalists exceeded the legal limit by only three cents on the dollar - sofa change, hardly enough to buy victory.
Federalists didn't need to spin Grenier's report to put it in the best possible light. Grenier had already done that for them.
Grenier described his report as an opinion, not a judgment, and said he didn't need to meet the standard for a criminal trial of proof beyond a reasonable doubt or for a civil case of a preponderance of proof. All he needed was "sufficient proof" to support his conclusions.
But having thus lowered the bar, he was then still reluctant to step over it. He bent so far backward to give the benefit of the doubt that he must have written his report while lying supine.
He praised the "quality and honesty of the work" by the BCP advertising firm, dismissing Lester's and Philpot's allegations against it as "unfounded." The two authors must regret having called in their book for just such an inquiry.
Concerning the role of Quebec Liberal Party officials, including Premier Jean Charest's present chief of staff, Stephane Bertrand, Grenier asks many more questions than he provides answers.
"Maybe" one or another of them wasn't "sufficiently vigilant" or should have been aware of some of Option Canada's illegal spending. The evidence is that "persons in authority in the QLP lacked vigilance." But since Grenier found insufficient evidence to blame any of them in particular, he ends up blaming no one.
He is less indulgent toward the official agent of the No committee, saying she did her work with "integrity" but, nevertheless, making her the fall girl for the committee for not ensuring Option Canada obeyed the law. But he absolves the committee's political leaders, including Charest, who as head of the federal Progressive Conservative Party was a vice-chairman, of any responsibility.
And nowhere in the 98 pages of the main body of his report is there a memorable phrase to provide an obvious headline to be taped to a baseball bat with which to beat Charest or other present-day federalist politicians over the head.
Charest described the report, accurately and with relief, as "a damp squib." He already has enough troubles without the report adding to them.
Federalists off the hook
The Judge bent so far backward to give the benefit of the doubt to the No side that he must have written his report lying supine