When an affair of the heart becomes an affair of state

"L'affaire Maxime Bernier"

It's not exactly a pickup line calculated to make a woman go weak at the knees: "Hi, I'm Maxime. Have you ever had any criminal associates?"
But even if Maxime Bernier had posed that question the first time he met Julie Couillard, it's hard to imagine that he would have received an answer likely to save his fledgling career in the federal cabinet.
Nor would the RCMP have been much help. It didn't investigate Couillard even after the voluptuous mystery woman turned up on Bernier's arm in August 2007 at his swearing-in as Canada's minister for foreign affairs. But it also turns out that the federal police did know something about her past, a litany of relationships with men involved with biker gangs and the criminal underworld.

The whole issue has for now ossified into a "he said, she said" stalemate. Couillard asserts unequivocally that Bernier knew about her checkered past when they started going out together last year. Bernier himself insisted just as firmly on Wednesday that he learned about it only this April 20, just before the scandal erupted and long after their relationship had ended.
Whatever the truth, the question remains: Should the partner of a federal cabinet minister be investigated and vetted by security forces? Or is that an intrusion into the affairs of a person who did not choose public life? Further, should future Maxime Berniers - young, unattached, attractive and ministrable - be expected to ask about a new friend's past on the first date? The second? The fifth?
It seems to us that in the interest of national security, particularly when it involves such a high post as foreign affairs, the answer is clear: A partner should certainly be vetted.
In this case, whether by design or happenstance, a person once close to organized crime and biker gangs got just as close to Canada's foreign-affairs minister - who left documents he now dismisses as unimportant in her apartment for weeks on end. That, however you cut it, is a security breach, even if it did not necessarily result in material harm to Canada.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former RCMP and CSIS agent, told a House of Commons committee that in principle, all cabinet ministers must undergo security background checks. But unlike federal employees, he added, elected officials can and do "exempt" themselves regularly from that requirement. He said he has deplored this double standard ever since he was a federal investigator.
We agree completely, and that's the first hole that federal regulations should patch. It's illogical that middle level or even high-ranking functionaries are probed and scrutinized while a foreign affairs, industry or finance minister is not. True, police investigating ministers can be a touchy business, but it needs to be done.
And if ministers need security clearance, so do their intimate friends. The tussle over what Couillard told Bernier could have been rendered moot by a proper RCMP investigation early on.

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