Canada

John Munro's quest for redemption

BRUCE WALLACE October 13 1997
Canada

John Munro's quest for redemption

BRUCE WALLACE October 13 1997

John Munro's quest for redemption

Canada

Ottawa wants to settle the compensation case

BRUCE WALLACE

For a guy who pumped so many hands over the years, built a political network that turned Hamilton into his personal fiefdom and had his elbows on the cabinet table in every one of Pierre Trudeau’s governments, John Munro has ended up remarkably bereft of friends. “There’s just been so much bad publicity about John,” explains Senator Eugene Whelan, one of the few Liberals to still stand up for his former colleague. It has been an agonizing and often tragic descent for a once-prominent politician. Beginning in the mid-1980s, federal lawyers and investigators tried to prove a host of alleged crimes related to the former Indian and northern affairs minister’s failed Liberal leadership run in 1984. Provincial division of Ontario Court Judge Jack Nadelle threw the case out of court in 1991, telling prosecutors: ‘You have not demonstrated a shred of evidence to support your theory.” Politics, though, demands more than legal absolution. Munro’s attempt to make a political comeback as a candidate in the 1993 general election was scotched by his own party leader, Jean Chrétien. And he has run up further debts over the past six years in a so-far fruitless legal struggle to get Ottawa to cover his nearly $1 million in defence costs from the trial. His dwindling band of friends and supporters say the effort has left the former cabinet minister, now 66, emotionally spent and financially ruined. Until now, the Liberal government has rebuffed all of Munro’s appeals for compensation.

But Maclean’s has learned that the Prime Minister has ordered his government to settle the case. Chrétien has directed Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, his chief troubleshooter, to ensure that the justice department reaches an agreement with Munro. “John is going to be, to some extent, bailed out,” says former Liberal senator Keith Davey, who along with former senator Allan MacEachen has cautiously lobbied the Prime Minister on Munro’s behalf. “Something will be done for him—not enough to please him, but that’s the game.” Gray himself said he “could not confirm that at this point.” But, he added, “certainly the matter is being looked at, and the minister of justice will be playing a role in this as well.” Munro’s associates say the former minister is seeking more than $2 million from the federal government, about half of which would be compensation for lost income as a result of the damage to his reputation by the trial and its aftermath. “His life has been in total disarray for more than 10 years,” said Wally Zimmerman, Munro’s Hamilton lawyer. “John has not been able to function, professionally or emotionally.” A skittish Munro refused to discuss the case with Maclean’s last week.

The Crown’s allegations centred on Munro’s financing of what could generously be called a quixotic bid for the Liberal leadership

in 1984. (Chrétien has always been irritated that ministers like Munro and Whelan cluttered up the race—one they had faint hope of winning—eventually won by John Turner.) The Crown’s case against Munro contended that, as minister of Indian affairs, he approved a $ 1.5-million grant to native groups that, in turn, made donations to his leadership campaign. Prosecutors also alleged that the Munro campaign improperly used student employees to feed data into his campaign computers.

• Life almost became not worth living. It is an inhumane situation that has been going on for years.

After a four-year investigation and nine months of Crown evidence, the charges were dismissed without Munro having to call a single witness in his defence. In fact, Nadelle called the Crown’s dark scenario nothing more than a series of routine meetings and “irrelevant testimony.” Munro described the judge’s decision as “the happiest moment of my life,” and accused the Crown, the RCMP and the media covering the investigation of “rampant abuse.” He then sued the federal government to recover his legal costs. Munro claimed he should be compensated by Treasury Board guidelines, which required Ottawa to pay legal costs of civil servants who must defend themselves against allegations levelled while they are in office—and which in 1992 were changed to cover ministers.

There are precedents for such payments. The Mulroney government invoked the same argument to pay former cabinet minister Sinclair Stevens’s legal bills in his conflict of interest case. And the Chrétien government has agreed to cover former prime „ minister Brian Mulroney’s legal bills—believed to be in the neigh-1 borhood of $1.2 million—arising from the notorious Airbus inves-1 tigation and Mulroney’s $50-million lawsuit against Ottawa, which § was settled out of court last January. The House of Commons | Board of Internal Economy also pays the legal bills of MPs who « face lawsuits related to parliamentary business, examining their □ merits on a case-by-case basis. £

Nor does Munro lack sympathy from the opposition benches. Reform MP Ian McClelland rose in the House last year to demand an explanation for the government’s refusal to pay. “It seems to me he’s on the hook for something that is routinely paid by the Board of Internal Economy,” McClelland said last week. And Tory Senator Eric Berntson, who himself faces charges of fraud and breach of trust from his days as Saskatchewan deputy premier in the 1980s, has raised the issue numerous times in the red chamber. Munro’s name was dragged through the mud for eight years, Berntson told the Senate last week. “He has been left absolutely destitute. His name lies in tatters, and he is without too many friends among his old colleagues.”

Munro did, in fact, become a pariah in Liberal circles, a politician who loved grip-and-grope politics who suddenly found that Liberal throngs would give him plenty of room. “People would cross the street when they saw him,” says Zimmerman, a former president of the Ontario Liberal party. The stain on his reputation remained, Munro’s supporters maintain, because Ottawa chose to fight his lawsuit seeking compensation.

In 1995, the Chrétien government asked former Supreme Court justice Willard Estey for a legal opinion on whether to pay Munro. Citing cabinet confidentiality, the report has not been released—though Estey has never denied widespread reports that he recommended payment. Yet the government balked, in part, Munro’s side acknowledges, because of a technical misunderstanding about which creditors would get paid under any deal. Instead, says Zimmerman, “government lawyers tried to knock us out on motions and they took years to come up with documents.”

According to his friends, the effect on Munro, once a garrulous backslapper and unabashed Liberal cheerleader, has been devastating. “John is a crushed man—everybody thinks he was a crook,” says Whelan, who used to allow the cashstrapped Munro to sleep on the couch in his Ottawa office whenever the case brought him to the capital. “He’s an emotional fellow,” says Whelan. “When he would lose an argument in cabinet, sometimes he would break right down.” Munro has also been forced to use all his retirement savings and sell a cottage in order to cover some of his legal costs. “Life almost became not worth living,” Munro told Maclean’s last week. “It is an inhumane situation that has been going on for years.”

Frustrated by the slow pace in court, Munro continued to press a back channel to Chrétien through former senators Davey and MacEachen. “John’s a decent guy, an honest guy, who got into the glue,” says Davey. Associates say both men were leery of approaching Chrétien, assuming that the Prime Minister was angry with Munro and in no mood to cut a deal. Many Liberals were, in fact, furious that Munro had defied Chrétien by expressing interest in a Liberal nomination for the 1993 election. “He pissed people off,” said one senior Liberal, pointing out that, at the time, Chrétien was desperate to avoid any baggage that would reinforce the Tory attacks on him as “yesterday’s man.” ‘We didn’t want people from the old crew, like Munro and Whelan, running in ’93,” said the Liberal.

That still does not explain the continued reluctance of the Liberals to close the case, or why they are now preparing to settle. The government may have feared that paying Munro might make it liable for the court costs of the other eight defendants, including six native chiefs, charged at the same time, and whose cases were also dismissed. But Zimmerman notes that “support for John seems to have developed around the time of the Mulroney settlement.” Certainly, the risk of a political backlash to the Liberals seems slight, since Reform has already signalled its backing for Munro. “If someone is falsely accused while in public office and is exonerated in a court of law, then the taxpayer should pick up their costs,” Reform justice critic Jack Ramsay told Maclean’s last week. “What’s fair is fair.” For John Munro, that cannot come soon enough. □