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Martin was Warned

Despite the Prime Minister's denials of knowledge, Martin was alerted to scandal two years ago by a senior Liberal Party Officer


 

Staff
13 Febraury 2004

 

OTTAWA - Paul Martin was urged by a senior Liberal party official in early 2002 to look into rumours that federal money was being improperly funnelled through the government's sponsorship program for "partisan purposes," the National Post has learned.

In a February, 2002, letter sent to Mr. Martin while he was still finance minister, the party's then-national policy chair asked him to "prepare a fact-based reply" to "the growing rumours that funds from the sponsorship programme are being diverted" through advertising firms closely linked to the Liberals.

Akaash Maharaj warned Mr. Martin that fellow members were expressing discomfort about the speculation, so much so that the issue had "become a creeping miasma over the Party."

Because Mr. Martin was both the "government's chief financial officer and our Party's most senior Quebec minister" at the time, Mr. Maharaj said he was the perfect person to examine the allegations.

"I trust you will agree, however, that while it would be absurd for a minister of the Crown or an officer of the Party to act on every rumour that comes his or her way, this one is sui generis, and cries out to be nipped in the bud."

The letter emerged as questions over the sponsorship scandal continued yesterday.

The scandal erupted on Tuesday when Sheila Fraser, the Auditor- General, revealed that as part of a Chretien-era marketing plan to promote federalism in Quebec, Liberal-friendly advertising firms received $100-million in commissions and fees in exchange for little or no work.

Opposition critics have demanded to know what Mr. Martin knew of problems in the program and when he learned of them. Critics have also questioned why Mr. Martin, who was finance minister at the time, did nothing to stop the problems.

Mr. Martin said yesterday he knew little about the program during his tenure as Jean Chretien's finance minister, and any Cabinet minister who did know about corruption and did nothing about it should resign.

Mr. Martin said yesterday that he had believed problems ailing the program were merely administrative until Ms. Fraser's first report on problems in the sponsorship program was released in May, 2002.

"That is when I began to understand that what had occurred went far beyond administrative failures and involved possible criminal conduct," he said.

"But even then, no one understood the full scope of what was involved until the Auditor-General's report that came out recently."

He also repeated an earlier position that there was little he could do to influence decisions regarding Quebec.

Mr. Maharaj said yesterday he received a standard letter of receipt from Mr. Martin's office, but never any further direction on how to answer the onslaught of questions coming from other Liberals.

Scott Reid, a spokesman for the Prime Minister, said his staff was still searching for the February letter last night so it is unclear how Mr. Martin responded to the message, if at all.

However, he said the letter would have been just one aspect of the flurry of rumours and media reports about possible corruption that were floating around Ottawa in early 2002 -- rumours that led to Ms. Fraser being called in to investigate contracts awarded to Groupaction, a Montreal advertising firm.

"Mr. Martin, as a member of the Cabinet, was part of the decision to call in the Auditor-General," Mr. Reid said last night.

Mr. Maharaj's 2002 letter, however, expressed concern that the Auditor-General and the Ethics Counsellor lacked "the ability to fully investigate the government programmes" because they could not delve deeply enough into the inner workings of the Liberal Party of Canada.

"My worry is that any report by them that is silent on the role of the Party is likely to be interpreted as implicating the Party merely by its failure to exonerate the Party," he wrote.

Although based on media reports and innuendo circling through the Liberal Party of Canada, Mr. Maharaj's letter warns of a possible partisan payment scheme "connected with the 2000 general election campaign in Quebec."

Mr. Maharaj said last night that although the letter did not contain details, it should have at least given Mr. Martin an idea of the potential abuse being waged with taxpayers' money.

"In the exceptionally unlikely event that there are any shards of fact within the rumours, I know you will agree that the Party would have a still greater responsibility to discover and to be forthcoming with the truth," he wrote in the 2002 letter. "Ultimately, each of us has a duty to be a patriot before he is a partisan, and to be guided by the judgement of history rather than the verdict of tomorrow's polls."

Mr. Martin said yesterday he takes "personal responsibility" for getting to the bottom of what went wrong. He also promised to appear before the public inquiry he established earlier this week.

"I profoundly regret that something as objectionable as this occurred, and for the unconscionable disregard that some in government, bureaucratic and political, showed for the law and for appropriate behaviour," the Prime Minister said.

"Anyone who knows anything that could help shed light in this area, in the government, in the caucus or anywhere in the country, corporations or in the Liberal party should come forward, not wait to be compelled, as they will."

Mr. Maharaj, who is no longer the national policy chair, said although he expected a more comprehensive response from Mr. Martin, he will be "shocked" if the Prime Minister is found to be implicated in the sponsorship scandal.

"I believe he is a person of integrity," he said of Mr. Martin. "What I will say, though, is that I am certain there is more to come out, because the essence of democracy is public accountability. Heads must roll over this affair, and they must roll at the highest level."


The Maharaj Letter

The following is a copy of the letter sent to Paul Martin, then finance minister, from Akaash Maharaj, national policy chairman for the Liberal Party of Canada, on Feb. 7, 2002.

Dear Minister Martin,

Confidential

I hope this note finds you well. I am writing to you in my capacity as the Party's National Policy Chair, regarding the issue of Groupaction and the federal sponsorship programme. I realise that this matter does not fall strictly under your ministerial purview, but from a Party perspective, given your unique combination of roles as our government's chief financial officer and our Party's most senior Quebec minister, I felt that you would have both a special interest in and a particular capacity to assist on this issue.

During the December meeting of the National Policy Committee, a number of provincial policy chairs reported to me their discomfort, and that of their respective members, that this issue has become a creeping miasma over the Party. Personally, I am receiving increasing numbers of e-mails from Party members at large on the subject, and hearing about it directly at provincial AGMs, in particular at the recent LPCBC policy conference.

In essence, there are persistent and growing rumours that funds from the sponsorship programme are being diverted to partisan purposes connected with the 2000 general election campaign in Quebec, through the agency of advertising and public relations firms associated with the Party.

I feel certain that the enormity of these allegations means that they must be unfounded, perhaps the product of idle tongues in a post-campaign, pre-leadership review period, when the armies of Party organisers are neither engaged nor demobilised. However, I am sure you will appreciate that even if these rumours are without any foundation in fact, we allow them to gain currency within the Party at our peril.

It is precisely during a period of political uncertainty that the membership and the media are most alert to the whiff of scandal. Moreover, as a voluntary organisation made up of people who have been brought together by a shared belief in the nobility of public service, there is no greater danger to our Party than a loss of faith amongst our members in our adherence to basic standards of democratic accountability.

As I am sure you are aware, the organisational structure of the Liberal Party of Canada is, to put it charitably, byzantine. The LPC, the provincial and territorial wings, and the campaign apparatus are all at arm's length from one another. The accounts of individual provincial campaigns are not universally accessible to elected Party officers.

You know that the fact that I have a decidedly vigorous commitment to the ideals of public accountability and transparency has caused some of our colleagues to be less than fully cooperative with me. As a result of all this, I fear it is impossible for me, as a single officer of the LPC, to accumulate the information necessary to refute the rumours being put to me by Party members and provincial officers.

I should, therefore, like to ask you to consider using your twin offices as Minister of Finance and senior minister in Quebec, to prepare a fact-based reply that we can proclaim when rumours are whispered within the Party, or, as will inevitably occur, stated in the media. I am, of course, aware that the Ethics Counsellor and the Auditor General have the ability to fully investigate the government programmes in question. However, my understanding is that as non- Partisan officers of Parliament, their inquiries must be confined to government, to the exclusion of Party. My worry is that any report by them that is silent on the role of the Party, is likely to be interpreted as implicating the Party merely by its failure to exonerate the Party.

In the exceptionally unlikely event that there are any shards of facts within the rumours, I know you will agree that the Party would have a still greater responsibility to discover and to be forthcoming with the truth. Ultimately, each of us has a duty to be a patriot before he is a partisan, and to be guided by the judgement of history rather than the verdict of tomorrow's polls.

While we would certainly suffer short-term damage in the public's esteem if we were to uncover misdeeds of this nature by Liberals, the wound would eventually heal: I believe in the long-term, Canadians would come to respect a demonstration by our Party that the virtue of the institution is greater than the greed of a few individuals. However, if it were ever discovered that the Party had been complicit in a violation of the public's trust, if only through silence or indifference, the blow would be crippling.

I regret that while these are serious matters, I have no first-hand or hard information about the sponsorship programme and possible connections to the Party. I trust you will agree, however, that while it would be absurd for a minister of the Crown or an officer of the Party to act on every rumour that comes his or her way, this one is sui generis, and cries out to be nipped in the bud.

I look forward to hearing from you, and thank you in advance for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,
Akaash Maharaj
National Policy Chair, Liberal Party of Canada


















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