It was impossible to watch Brian Mulroney's testimony before the House of Commons ethics committee yesterday without feeling a sense of nostalgia. Whether reading from his prepared remarks or sparring with committee members, the 68-year-old former prime minister had little trouble summoning up the same leonine bluster and bravado, the same impatient, booming cadences, that characterized his time as the country's political leader. At times, he was completely convincing -- never more so than at the end of his statement, when he pointed out that his nemesis, Karlheinz Schreiber, "will say anything, sign anything and do anything to avoid extradition" from Canada to Germany.
Mr. Mulroney is surely sincere in regretting what he described to the committee as the first-and second-biggest mistakes of his life: agreeing to be introduced to Mr. Schreiber and receiving what he says were three cash payments of $75,000 from him. According to the former prime minister, Mr. Schreiber insisted on paying cash for legitimate international lobbying work and described this as standard practice for "European businessmen."
Mr. Mulroney apparently missed a crucial opportunity when he failed to offer the appropriate reply: "That may be so, sir, but I'm a Canadian, and I'd like everything to be above board and on the record."
But let's agree for the sake of argument that this was merely an oversight, and that everything went just as Mr. Mulroney says it did. By his account, he agreed in 1993 to accept $75,000 a year to promote Thyssen AG's military vehicles for peacekeeping applications. He took three payments, traveling around the world to promote Thyssen to world leaders such as Boris Yeltsin and Francois Mitterrand. He violated no law or code of conduct in doing so, and he was careful never to engage in any lobbying activities within Canada. (He admits to receiving the first payment while still an MP, as was permitted under the applicable guidelines.)
Believe all this upon the word of Mr. Mulroney, and what else must you believe? He says that he was never asked to file written reports with Schreiber or anyone else at Thyssen in exchange for this lucrative work, nor asked for details of his expenses. He never deposited the three $75,000 payments in any bank or other credit account, supposedly choosing to stick bundles of thousand-dollar bills in safety deposit boxes and drawing upon them as needed. He says that when he received the third and final payment in New York, he put the money in a safety deposit box there, instead of bringing it back with him to Canada where it would be close at hand. And he claims he kept a record of how much he had drawn down from these various stashes, but that the ledger has long since been discarded or destroyed, along with any other records relating to the $225,000. There are apparently no surviving notes or diaries on the meetings for which he was paid, either.
This is, to say the least, rather strange behaviour for someone who was supposedly being paid for genuine work in good faith. (Safety deposit boxes? Why not put the whole wad under a mattress?) It seems almost equally odd that in 1999, after Schreiber was charged with bribery and corruption in Germany, Mr. Mulroney unilaterally decided that the remainder of the money was only now formally "his" and that it was finally time to report the existence of the $225,000 to Revenue Canada. He paid taxes on the entire sum, even the deductible portion he apparently had used up in meeting his lobbying expenses.
Mr. Mulroney clearly feels himself (and his family) victimized by the attention his financial dealings have received over the years. He is justified to the extent that so far specific accusations of illegality have failed to hold up, and clearly the $2.1-million he received from the federal government in a defamation settlement has done little to assuage his hurt feelings. But where his dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber Are concerned, his strenuously projected sense of self-pity is misplaced.
Mr. Mulroney now admits that getting into business with Karlheinz Schreiber was a "mistake." Indeed, it appears to have involved a long sequence of mistakes -- quite extraordinary mistakes, in fact. Despite what he says, he is doing a poor job of "taking responsibility" for his conduct. That would require a far better balance between contrition and indignation than what we have seen from Mr. Mulroney thus far.