Gomery Inquiry Reveals Liberal In-fighting

JUSTICE JOHN GOMERY'S command of French is flawless, but his accent is unique: he sounds like a bad French actor imitating how an Anglo is supposed to sound when speaking French - cute, but seldom heard in real life.

Gomery Inquiry Reveals Liberal In-fighting

JUSTICE JOHN GOMERY'S command of French is flawless, but his accent is unique: he sounds like a bad French actor imitating how an Anglo is supposed to sound when speaking French - cute, but seldom heard in real life. Add the caustic wit that Gomery doesn't always keep in check, and you have a very funny judge at times. As he was resuming work after lunch last Wednesday, while lawyers were, as always, tabling a fresh stack of documents as new evidence, Gomery brought the house down when he looked at the papers and remarked, "I am tempted to say that everything looks normal."

Elsewhere, things were anything but. Just hours before, Prime Minister Paul MARTIN had announced that his government will submit to a vote of confidence in the House of Commons this Thursday - a political crisis triggered and fuelled by revelations arising from Gomery's inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. So, the judge is certainly the man who could bring the House down as well.

Quips aside, Gomery's inquiry last week plodded away from now-familiar grounds - admen making piles of money from too-good sponsorship contracts. It zeroed in on political pay dirt instead - how part of that money was recycled into illegally financing Liberal riding associations in federal elections in 1997 and 2000. Intensive grilling of Liberal organizers, fundraisers, and senior party officials yielded a devastating picture of the Quebec wing of the LIBERAL PARTY - that of a disliked and morally bankrupt political machine, prepared to bend the rules to cling to power.

Even more damaging was testimony depicting the Liberals - champions of national unity - as a paranoid and bitterly divided gang prone to scheming, backstabbing, uttering violent threats and, horrors, even trying to ruin golf scores. "We've become just as bad as the Quebec Tories once were," one provincial Liberal said privately. The party's fabled ability to close ranks seems to have suffered a meltdown as it finds itself the victim of a long leadership battle, conflicting regional interests, gangland-style struggles for power and influence, and plain greed, perhaps compounded by the depressing feeling of sailing a sinking ship.

Daniel Dezainde, a former executive director of the Quebec wing of the Liberal party, said he sought protection from the RCMP prior to speaking in front of the commission. He is still reeling from threats uttered by a rival, Giuseppe (Joseph) Morselli, a Montreal fundraiser close to former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano. Dezainde's testimony was, by far, the most devastating last week. He told the commission that Jacques Corriveau, an old friend of Jean CHRÉTIEN - and a Gomery witness who blamed his memory lapses on age and illness - privately admitted to creating a system to collect kickbacks from ad agencies, and returning a part of the money to the party.

Dezainde, fastidious and soft-spoken, took lengths to explain how party officials like himself were being "bypassed by a parallel structure" set up by Gagliano to wrestle party finances from his control. He said Morselli, Gagliano's friend, appointed himself the party's vice-president, finance - a position that does not exist. In turn, Morselli hired Beryl Wajsmann, who, Dezainde said, was paid a commission on funds he would raise. "I followed my political instinct," Dezainde said, and fired Wajsmann after suspecting he was doubling up as a lobbyist for firms he was collecting from - a "surefire recipe for an atomic catastrophe." Dezainde said he complained to Gagliano that Wajsmann kept him in the dark while conducting unauthorized fundraising operations, but to no avail. It was when he refused to rehire Wajsmann that an angry Morselli threatened him, Dezainde told Gomery, swallowing sobs.

But Wajsmann, a mercurial Montreal consultant, denied all the allegations. He hinted to Gomery that Gagliano's authority over party affairs was larger than his intellect, and called Dezainde "a racist." And Wajsmann and Tony Mignacca, Gagliano's former chief organizer, both took potshots at Groupaction's Jean Brault, who had been the first to testify about sponsorship money allegedly going to party coffers. Mignacca said Brault was drunk, or on drugs, or both "and looked like a Hell's Angel" when he first met him in a restaurant. Wajsmann described him as an unsavoury mustachioed Elvis. Both denied ever receiving money from him. Morselli is scheduled to appear in front of the commission at a later date.

A telltale sign of the dismal state of Liberal party unity: Dezainde, currently a political aide to federal cabinet minister Jacques Saada, was among the government professionals accused of being a "fake volunteer" by Benoît Corbeil, his predecessor at the helm of the Liberals' Quebec wing. Corbeil said he distributed cash payments to several professionals working as volunteers while on leave from their regular ministerial cabinet work in the 2000 election. Corbeil said the money - $50,000 in cash - was from Brault's Groupaction. Dezainde denied that, saying he can prove he was paid by the party, and by cheque. Other alleged "fake volunteers" - among them Irène Marcheterre, now working with the Prime Minister's current Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre - served a legal notice demanding Corbeil retract his allegations. Another alleged "fake volunteer," Luc Bastien, resigned from his job as chief of staff for Quebec Justice Minister Yvon Marcoux.

The inquiry also heard that $60,000 in $100 bills makes a stack "about 3½ inches thick" when stuffed into a padded manila envelope. That from Marc-Yvan Côté, a former Quebec cabinet minister and top-notch political organizer. Côté was called to the rescue prior to the 1997 vote to do something about the dearth of Liberal supporters in eastern Quebec, with 20 of 21 ridings held by the Bloc Québécois. He said he received $120,000 in cash from then-party president Michel Béliveau - Adscam money, apparently. Côté cut an initial payment of $60,000 into smaller stacks that were handed out to various candidates gathered to kick off the campaign in Chrétien's riding of Saint Maurice. But, when asked about his relationship with the federal Liberals, Côté said: "In the 1990 leadership race, I supported neither Mr. Chrétien nor Mr. Martin. I was part of those [Quebec Liberals] who were deeply wounded by the collapse of the Meech Lake accord. I am not a member of that club." "You mean, the cigar club?" Justice Gomery threw in.

What else happened last week? Richard Boudreault, a "creative" in advertising, said he was paid off the books by his employer Groupaction to develop the Liberals' advertising campaign in 1997. And, oh yes, Quebec's Revenue Minister Lawrence Bergman said he has instructed his department to keep a close watch on allegations of hanky-panky and cash payments among Liberal politicos and those ad agencies. Small wonder then that Conservative and Bloc MPs were all so excited, clamouring for an immediate confidence vote. They smell the blood on the Gomery inquiry floor. Liberal blood.

See also CORRUPTION.

Maclean's May 23, 2005