When it comes to books that mention him, Premier Jean Charest is apparently a selective reader.
Brian Mulroney describes in his memoirs how he learned the full extent of Lucien Bouchard's betrayal of Mulroney and Charest over the Meech Lake constitutional accord when the premier referred him to a biography of Jacques Parizeau three years ago.
Yet Charest claimed to have been "astonished" this week by another revelation about him that first surfaced in another book published six years ago.
Charest said he "didn't know" about a contribution by Karlheinz Schreiber to his 1993 Progressive Conservative leadership campaign, even though it had first been disclosed in a book published in 2001.
The amount of the contribution, which was accepted by Charest's brother Robert, is in dispute. Jean Charest said this week it was $10,000, while Schreiber testified under oath before a parliamentary committee this week that it was $30,000.
I couldn't determine whether the contribution violated the campaign rules, since both the premier's office and the present Conservative Party said they didn't have a copy of them.
It seems clear, however, that the contribution was legal, since prior to 2004, federal political finance legislation did not apply to party leadership campaigns. It was left up to the parties to set their own campaign finance rules, which were often enforced loosely.
Naturally, Charest's political adversaries were only too happy to have his name linked to Schreiber and the cash contributions he is known to hand out to politicians he believes can be useful to him.
"Of course," Schreiber told the parliamentary committee, "if Mr. Charest would have won the leadership convention and would have become the prime minister after Mr. Mulroney, sure I would think he would recognize that he got help from us when he ran for the leadership. I mean, this is the normal course of the idea."
But unless it can be shown it violated the party rules, Charest shouldn't be blamed today for accepting a contribution from Schreiber in 1993. That was a year before Schreiber's name surfaced publicly in connection with the Airbus affair. And political organizations don't have the means to conduct thorough background checks on every would-be contributor.
That Charest's adversaries are unable to vouch for the character of everyone who buys a ticket to one of their own fundraising cocktails might help explain why they had all but stopped pressing the matter by yesterday.
Another possible reason is that no new information had been disclosed to give the matter the legs a good political scandal requires.
But the real scandal in relation to this affair went overlooked. It's that the kind of large cash donation Schreiber made to Charest's leadership campaign 14 years ago would still be legal in Quebec provincial politics today.
Long in the avant garde of political finance reform, Quebec now has fallen behind Ottawa. Three years after Parliament applied its campaign finance law to party leadership campaigns, Quebec has yet to do so.
(The Parti Québécois voluntarily applied the law to its 2005 campaign so contributors would be eligible for tax credits, making it the first Quebec leadership campaign to be taxpayer-subsidized.)
So, paradoxically, while the lowliest opposition backbencher can't legally accept a large, secret contribution, an aspiring premier can.
Last month, a study group on political finances, headed by Quebec's chief electoral officer and including representatives of the three parties in the Assembly, published its report.
It said the Election Act should contain rules for leadership campaign finances. But this committee recommended another committee be created to draft them.
And it said the rules shouldn't necessarily require disclosure of who gave how much to which candidate. So a Karlheinz Schreiber could still attempt to buy a candidate's "recognition" without anybody finding out about it. If Schreiber can avoid extradition to Germany, he may want to set up shop in Quebec.
It's been 244 years, not 143 as I wrote on Thursday, since the British took Canada from France. Yeah, I knew that.
No smoking gun in Schreiber cash for Charest
But the real scandal is that the donation would be legal under Quebec laws today