Politics

BIG GAME HUNTING

The Gomery inquiry is determined to follow the money trail wherever it leads

JOHN GEODES November 22 2004
Politics

BIG GAME HUNTING

The Gomery inquiry is determined to follow the money trail wherever it leads

JOHN GEODES November 22 2004

BIG GAME HUNTING

Politics

JOHN GEODES

The Gomery inquiry is determined to follow the money trail wherever it leads

CHUCK GUITÉ CUT quite a figure when he first swaggered into the national spotlight. The retired bureaucrat, who was once conductor on the federal sponsorship gravy train, remained defiant last spring under grilling from a parliamentary committee. Guité stuck to his story that Liberal politicians and their operatives didn’t interfere with the way he made the program’s big-money decisions. His considerable chutzpah drove opposition MPs to distraction. He seemed like the kind of guy who would wear a cowboy hat, and he did. But that was then; Justice John Gomery’s judicial inquiry is now. Under many hours of questioning from the inquiry’s lawyers this month, Guité shrank to the point where it seemed he might crawl under that hat to hide. He now admits that political higher-ups often told him what to do. The notion that the buck ever stopped at his desk is no longer a viable working hypothesis.

Puncturing a puffed-up former public servant’s attitude, though, is hardly a worthy accomplishment for a $20.4-million commission of inquiry. Guité’s testimony is key not for what it reveals about his limited role, but for what it signals about where Gomery might go from here. Clearly, the judge’s team is hunting bigger game. The stakes have been set high for key players from Jean Chretien’s era in power: Guité’s revised version of how things worked during the program’s late-1990s heyday features Jean Pelletier, who was Chretien’s chief of staff, and Jean Carle, once a trusted top aide to the former prime minister, personally selecting events to be sponsored. More generally, the hearings have made the suspicious way the program distributed funds a matter of record. Last week, for instance, Guité admitted that he once cut a dubious deal to reimburse Via Rail Canada Inc. for money it put up to sponsor a documentary about hockey hero Maurice (Rocket) Richard.

Such tales of federal funds diverted down strange tributaries might do little more than prompt taxpayers to give their heads a shake and look away in disgust. But beyond the facts the inquiry is bringing to light, the commission’s progress toward larger goals is worth charting. It all started last winter, when Auditor General Sheila Fraser reported that Ottawa often got little or nothing for over $100 million paid in fees and commissions to Liberal-friendly advertising and communications firms, under a $250-million sponsorship program that ran between 1997 and 2003. Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed Gomery, a Montreal judge, to get to the bottom of what happened. Gomery hired a squad of lawyers and a platoon of investigators and went to work. When it is done with Guité, the commission will climb the power ladder, questioning Crown corporation officials, then politicians and their aides, and finally advertising company executives. Hearings should wrap up next spring, with a report due by the end of 2005.

Martin is expected to testify in January. An inquiry official said he has been subpoenaed, just like all the other witnesses. So far, no link has been drawn between Martin and sponsorship decision-making. More problematic for him could be questions about how much, as a Quebec cabinet minister, he knew about how a multi-million-dollar program was being run on his home turf. He has said he knew little before the whole affair became public knowledge. Even if he stays unsullied personally, Martin will have to cope with any further damage to his party’s already badly dented reputation in Quebec. Opposition MPs are on the lookout for evidence that the program was designed to line the pockets of Liberal friends, or to direct money back to the party. “Was it the intent of the political side to use this program for dubious purposes?” asks Conservative MP James Moore. “Or did it just go off the rails? It’s either corruption or incompetence—and an answer about which is required.”

That answer might not arise from the hearings. An inquiry official said as many as 38 experts, including forensic accountants from the firm Kroll Lindquist Avey, are working for Gomery “seven days a week,” combing millions of pages of government and company documents to piece together a money trail. More testimony from Guité is slated to come later this month, but the real investigative action—sifting through that mountain of documents and discs—is taking place off-stage.