Dere go da judge

John Gomery will be known as the man who brought down a government

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The Gazette, Friday, August 10, 2007

On the day that Belinda Stronach crossed the floor in May 2005, I ran into John Gomery on his way back from lunch.

"You're not the news today, judge?" I said. "I hope you're not planning on making any."

Gomery just laughed and shook his head at the astonishing news from Ottawa, where Stronach had ditched her party and, in the bargain, her boyfriend, to join the Liberal cabinet of Paul Martin.

But on most other days, for months of his hearings into the sponsorship scandal, Gomery made lots of news. It was a sensational story of cronyism and corruption, of sleazy suppliers who lined their pockets with taxpayers' dollars and kicked back part of the proceeds to the Liberal Party of Canada. And they weren't just the friends of the Liberal Party, some of them were the friends of Jean Chrtien.

What did Gomery achieve at the end of the day?

Well, it isn't every commission of inquiry that brings down a government, as Gomery did. And make no mistake, it was Gomery's devastating fact-finding in November 2005 that sealed the fate of the Martin minority government in a non-confidence motion at the end of that month.

As he reached retirement on his 75th birthday yesterday, Gomery himself had a more modest take on it.

"No one really knew where the money went," he told Radio-Canada's CÚline Galipeau in an interview down on his farm at Havelock. "It was very satisfying to trace at least some of it."

Precisely. Auditor-general Sheila Fraser's 2003 report found a bureaucracy breaking every rule in the book, but she had no mandate to follow the money once it left town.

Gomery followed the money from Ottawa, and found it in Montreal. He found $90 million in billings for Groupaction/Gosselin, $68 million for Groupe Everest, and $65 million for Lafleur Communication. He also found Jacques Corriveau, chief Quebec organizer for Chrtien's leadership and election campaigns, flying under the radar with millions of dollars of subcontracts through his printing firm, Pluri Design.

Gomery also found cash in the trunk of Marc-Yvan Ct's car, part of $120,000 in walking- around money for Liberal candidates in eastern Quebec in the 1997 election. It was part of $300,000 cash that Michel Beliveau, then director-general of the Liberal Party for Quebec, disbursed to candidates across the province. There was $5,000 cash in an envelope in Frank's restaurant, which someone just left on a table when he went to the washroom.

There's never been such a cast of characters. Jean Lafleur, who remembered nothing but had his entire family on the payroll, gave new meaning to nepotism. His son ric billed more than $6 million for sponsorship gadgets and had Corriveau on retainer at $60,000 a year. There was Claude Boulay and Diane Deslauriers, the ineffable Groupe Everest power couple, with the $2-million house in the Carolinas. There was Joe Morselli, the catering guy and close associate of Alfonso Gagliano, who always ate at Frank's. There was Chuck Guit, the Ottawa paymaster.

And there was Jean Brault, who remembered everything and gave it all up in a week of embargoed testimony which, when it was finally released, nearly brought down the government six months before it finally fell.

And there were the lawyers, more than you've ever seen in one room. Lawyers for Gomery, lawyers for the witnesses, lawyers for all the political parties, lawyers for abused crown corporations, dozens of them, filling rows of seats in Gomery's hearing room. There were two who stood out. Guy Pratte and Doug Mitchell. Pratte made a closing presentation on behalf of his client, Jean Pelletier, that held everyone spellbound, and afterward lawyers from all sides rushed to congratulate him. Mitchell, with the unenviable task of representing the Liberals, did a very efficient job of suggesting the party was an innocent bystander, simply by demolishing the credibility of one witness after another.

For months, we sat along press row, wondering how the Gomery Commission could top the previous day's testimony, but it often did. My own favourite moment came when Joe Morselli said he was asked to bring paper to a meeting at Liberal headquarters.

"Paper?" Gomery asked.

"You know, paper," Morselli, "paper for the photocopier."

Rolling in cash, the Big Red Machine couldn't afford paper for the photocopier. "Is this a G7 country?" I asked my seatmate, Christie Blatchford of the Globe and Mail.

In the end, Gomery didn't find all the money. His forensic accountants found a trail that went cold offshore. And Gomery's second report of recommendations was quickly filed and forgotten.

But what he found in his first report, "a culture of entitlement," won't soon be forgotten. Nor will the consequences of his hearings. A party too accustomed to power confused its own well being with the national interest. The Liberals got caught by Fraser and exposed by Gomery.

If nothing like it ever happens again, Gomery will have done his job well. Thanks for the ride, judge. Bonne retraite.

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