Lafleur is the central figure in sponsorship scandal

Ad man could never remember details but always managed to send a bill

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Jean Lafleur couldn't remember anything, but never forgot to send out a bill.

From the beginning of the sponsorship scandal, he was the central figure in the story, the man whose greed connected all the dots in a saga of sleaze that led to the downfall of a Liberal dynasty.

When public-works official Chuck Guite was summoned to a meeting with minister Dave Dingwall in 1994, he was told he was about to meet two people - Jean Lafleur and Jacques Corriveau. Lafleur was in the advertising business, while Corriveau was identified as a close friend of Jean Chretien, one who should be looked after.

This was a full year before the 1995 referendum, whose close result led to the creation of the sponsorship program. But by then, Lafleur and Corriveau were already taking care of business. Lafleur, whose company received only $52,000 in government business in 1994-85, got $7.7 million in contracts the following year, and an amazing $16.4 million the year after that. No wonder he was able to sell his company to Jean Brault of Groupaction in 2000.

Lafleur's personal earnings of $100,000 in 1994 grew to $2 million the following year. He put his wife and son on the payroll and during the sponsorship era, they charged $13 million for their time and services. His son Eric, then a CEGEP graduate in his 20s, billed out to the government at $250 an hour, or $2,000 a day.

Along the way, Lafleur saw to it that Corriveau was looked after.

Corriveau had a printing and design company called Pleuri Design, whose clients included the Liberal Party of Canada, for whom it supplied signage and brochures in Quebec during the Chretien years. Corriveau, who was close enough to Chretien to have been invited to sleep over at 24 Sussex Dr., had organized the 1984 and 1990 Chretien leadership campaigns in Quebec.

In the advertising and marketing business, Lafleur Communication clearly needed printing and design services, and subcontracted to Corriveau for $1.8 million.

Understandably, Lafleur was also a generous donor to the Liberal Party of Canada's Quebec wing in those years. His company donated $67,000, while the Lafleur family was even more generous, giving $85,000 to the Liberals. Corriveau was later named by the Gomery commission as running a scheme of kickbacks to the Liberal Party.

None of this would ever have come out if Paul Martin hadn't named the Gomery Commission in 2004. Previously, in her own inquiry, auditor-general Sheila Fraser acknowledged that she didn't know what happened to the sponsorship money after it left Ottawa.

Well, most of it came to Montreal, to people like Lafleur, and to Corriveau.

As Chretien's one-time top organizer for Quebec, Corriveau's name would have rung alarm bells all over Ottawa if it had shown on Lafleur's bills to Public Works or any of the crown corporations to which he was a supplier.

But since millions of dollars of work was sub-contracted to Corriveau, his name never turned up on the government's books, and never turned up at all, until John Gomery's lawyers and accountants got on the case.

And by then, Lafleur was a ticking time-bomb. He had been careless in his high living. He bought season tickets in the reds for the Canadiens, and charged them back to a government client, Via Rail (he had also a free piece of Via Rail box at the Bell Centre that never showed up on anyone's books). He invited cabinet ministers on salmon fishing trips in the Gaspe, gave one guest a $1,300 fishing rod, and charged it back to the government. He once charged $3,000 for a bottle of wine. Eric Lafleur charged Rideau Hall $25,000 for one guest book, and supplied Public Works with those famous Jean Chretien signature golf balls.

There wasn't a crown corporation doing business in Montreal that was safe from Lafleur's greedy clutches. Canada Post gave him $2 million in contracts, without any kind of tendering process or competition, on direct orders from its chairman and later CEO, Andre Ouellet, the ultimate Liberal Party wheel horse. As the Gomery report noted: "The Lafleur agency became Canada Post's agency without having to go through a tendering process."

Lafleur was the agency of record for Via Rail, and all other suppliers had to tender their bills through Lafleur, which then billed on top. The Business Development Bank, and even the RCMP on the occasion of its 125th anniversary in 1998, had to do business with Lafleur.

This week, two years after he testified before Gomery that he couldn't remember anything, the police laid 35 charges of fraud against Lafleur, totalling $1.3 million, about one-tenth of what he billed.

Of course, Lafleur is on the lam. The last time he was sighted was in Costa Rica, two years ago. Wherever he is now, you can be sure it's in a country that doesn't have an extradition treaty with Canada.

Some people better hope so. If Lafleur is ever returned to Canada, faced with a long jail sentence, he might finally remember all that's he has forgotten.

For what we do know, we have to thank John Gomery.

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