CANADA

The Tories strike back

MARCUS GEE February 9 1987
CANADA

The Tories strike back

MARCUS GEE February 9 1987

The Tories strike back

The affair had begun with revelations about a mysterious land transaction in Quebec. On Jan. 18 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney asked for the resignation of junior transport minister André Bissonnette following disclosures that Oerlikon Aerospace Inc., a Canadian subsidiary of a Swiss arms manufacturer, had paid an inflated price for a 100-acre plot in Bissonnette’s Quebec riding. Oerlikon bought the land in January, 1986, in anticipation of receiving a $650-million government defence contract. But last week, with Mulroney away in Africa (page 8) and Bissonnette’s role in the land deal under investigation by the RCMP, attention shifted to another aspect of the Oerlikon affair. Opposition critics stepped up charges that friends of Mulroney had played an important role in securing the low-level air defence (LLAD) contract for Oerlikon. In the House of Commons, Liberal MP Don Boudria asked, “Is it necessary to hire a friend [of the Prime Minister] in order to get a contract from this government?”

The Conservative government quickly dismissed the charges. Switching to the attack after days of opposition battering, Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski rose in the House to ac-

cuse the Liberals of using smear tactics and innuendo. Indeed, the opposition offered no direct evidence that any Mulroney associates had exercised undue influence in favor of Oerlikon’s bid on the contract. And Mazankowski

deflected questions about the land sale itself by saying that the RCMP should be left alone to continue the investigation ordered by Mulroney.

Last week RCMP investigators searched the homes and offices of Bissonnette and two associates—Normand Ouellette and Bernard Tanguay—according to Ouellette’s lawyer, Jean Guilbeault. He added that the police had not talked to his client until the search. “We had offered to give them anything they wanted, but they never approached us,” Guilbeault said. Ouellette resigned as Conservative president of Bissonnette’s St-Jean riding association following allegations that he earned $970,000 from the land sale to Oerlikon. The land tripled in value in the 11 days before it was purchased by the arms manufacturer for $2.9 million.

Unrelated to the Oerlikon debate, Maclean’s learned last week that some of Bissonnette’s principal assets were sold to a group of Montreal investors with interests in hotels and real estate shortly before the Oerlikon land sale became a public issue. Bissonnette’s holdings in a blind trust were sold on Dec. 30, 1986; the transaction was handled by Paul Ouellette, brother of Normand Ouellette and a business associate of Bissonnette. Under the deal, six of Bissonnette’s companies—including his successful chickenprocessing firm, Les Volailles Vincent Inc.—were amalgamated under the name Gestion Colibri Inc. and sold for an undisclosed price.

But government critics continued to focus their attack on the role played in the affair by Mulroney’s friends and associates. Said Liberal justice critic Robert Kaplan: “There are very powerful friends of the Prime Minister now who are wheeling and dealing with the backing of the Canadian tax payer.” Coincidentally, a parliamentary committee report last week recommended —for the first time—the registration of lobbyists. The proposed registry would require lobbyists to say who they were working for and whom they were lobbying.

The main target of the opposition charges was Sam Wakim, a friend of Mulroney since university days. Wakim’s name appeared in a diary kept by Shirley Walker, an aide to former industry minister Sinclair Stevens. Entered as evidence in the judicial inquiry into conflict-of-interest allegations against Stevens, the diaries show that 2 Wakim attempted in August, I 1985, to arrange a meeting be5 tween Stevens, officials of Oerli-

kon and its chief subcontractor, Litton Systems Canada Ltd. Wakim confirmed that his Toronto law firm, Weir and Foulds, represented Litton, but he flatly denied involvement in Oerlikon’s contract bid.

Three friends of the Prime Minister have been at the centre of the Oerlikon debate: Montreal public relations consultant Roger Nantel, who worked on Mulroney’s 1983 leadership campaign, joined the Swiss company as a consultant in 1985; Jean Bazin, another old college friend of the Prime Minister and scheduled to be sworn in as a Quebec senator this week, served on the company’s board of directors; and Bazin’s cousin, Peter Ohrt, a former aide in the Prime Minister’s Office, is now an Oerlikon project manager. Last week Kingston, Ont. engineering executive Dugald Buchanan said that he had been verbally offered the project manager’s job late last November. But two weeks later he said that he was told that the job had gone to someone with more international experience, who turned out to be Ohrt. Buchanan said that he was puzzled by the decision because he had 20 years of experience managing technical projects; Ohrt had spent most of his career in marketing and political organizing. Said Buchanan, referring to Ohrt’s political connections: “I guess he had a few qualifications I couldn’t compete with.” On Oerlikon’s behalf, a spokesman issued a statement last week saying that the company had never made a written or verbal job offer to Buchanan.

Opposition critics said they were also concerned that four Armed Forces officers had gone to work for Oerlikon after it won the defence contract. The four worked as part of the group that evaluated bids for the contract. But Defence Minister Perrin Beatty declared last week that conflict-of-interest guidelines had not been broken.

Despite the criticism, Liberal MP Douglas Frith conceded that the opposition attack had stalled. Unable to prove that Mulroney’s friends had influenced the Oerlikon contract, the opposition continued to call for a public inquiry into the affair. But Liberal Leader John Turner, an old friend of Bazin’s, has chosen his words with care during the verbal jousting in the Commons. Turner told close friends last week that he fears the image of all politicians may be damaged by the Oerlikon affair. Whatever the outcome, overcoming that perception could prove difficult for politicians on both sides of the House.

MARCUS GEE

MADELAINE DROHAN

in Ottawa and BRUCE WALLACE in Montreal