Mulroney and the media… old columns

I’ve been writing about media coverage of Brian Mulroney and the Airbus scandal for years (most recently in the Sunday Daily News of Jan. 28, 2007). Here are some of the earlier columns as well as a link to a magazine profile of Mulroney I wrote for the Financial Post magazine in 1978 between his first failed leadership bid and his second, successful one..

The $300,000 question

(February 19, 2006)

If you want to know what Canada’s media considers important these days, take a brief gambol through Google’s database of Canadian news sources.

On Wednesday, I plugged the words “cartoon” and “Muslim” into the search engine and, 0.5 seconds later, Google spat back links to 9,990 stories in its Canada News library, most of them published in the past week. When I typed in “Gretzky” and “gambling,” Google found 6,030 stories in 0.19 seconds.

But when I entered the names “Mulroney” and “Schreiber,” it took the computer search engine all of 0.04 seconds to scour its complete collection of Canadian news sources and find a grand total of just 13 recent stories.

One of those was from an alternative online newspaper in British Columbia. Another was from the New Socialist, which referred to the latest twist in the never-quite-dead Airbus affair only in passing as part of a clearly more important story about how David Emerson had made the leap from Liberal cabinet minister to Tory cabinet minister without breaking a sweat or bothering to ask his constituents what they thought. (“Emerson” and “Harper,” by the way, produced 907 hits in 0.13 seconds.)

So what gives?

The week before, on Feb. 8, CBC-TV’s The Fifth Estate broadcast a full-show documentary called “Money, Truth and Spin.” The program — which featured the first sit-down interview with Karlheinz Schreiber, a shady German-Canadian lobbyist whose friends included any number of prominent Canadian politicians — neatly connected some of the missing dots between our former prime minister and Schreiber’s Swiss bank accounts.

It should have been very big news.

A quick recap. Soon after Mulroney left office, Schreiber told The Fifth Estate, he was approached by Mulroney’s ex-chief of staff Fred Doucet. Doucet explained to Schreiber that Mulroney needed money to help ease his transition back into private life. So Schreiber withdrew $300,000 from a Zurich bank account code-named “Britan” (for Brian) and doled it out in cash to Mulroney during three face-to-face meetings in Canada and the U.S. during 1993 and 1994.

The money came from a fund Schreiber controlled that had been set up to pay “grease money” to those who helped Airbus sell its jets to Air Canada.

In 1995, word leaked out that the RCMP was investigating Mulroney’s connection to those secret Swiss accounts and any role he might have played in Air Canada’s purchase of those jets.

Mulroney — who, for Machiavellian reasons too complex to go into here, was the most likely source of that leak — immediately launched a public relations offensive and sued the federal government for $50 million. He had soon won a groveling apology from the federal government, a $2-million settlement and, effectively, an end to the Mounties’ investigation.

During the legal proceedings in that lawsuit, however, Mulroney did testify under oath. He claimed he barely knew Schreiber and had had no business dealings with him.

But in 2003, when Mulroney’s $300,000 worth of non-business business dealings with Schreiber finally became public knowledge, a Mulroney spokesperson claimed the money was for consulting services Mulroney had provided in connection with a pasta business Schreiber was starting up.

Perhaps the most bizarre — and revealing — moment in last week’s documentary came when host Linden MacIntyre asked Schreiber what Mulroney actually did for the $300,000. Schreiber’s laugh lasted 10 seconds or more. “What had he done for the money?” Schreiber repeated MacIntyre’s question. “Well, I learned to my great surprise that he worked with me on spaghetti.”

Accept all the usual caveats. There is no evidence yet that Mulroney himself knew the cash he pocketed came from an account set up to distribute secret commissions in the Airbus sale. And Karlheinz Schreiber — who is fighting extradition to Germany where he faces criminal charges — is almost certainly looking out for his own best interests.

But even accepting those caveats, this is explosive stuff.

At the very least, there are suggestions that our former prime minister may have lied under oath about his relationship with Schreiber. And there are unanswered questions about what Mulroney really knew about the source of the cash he took.

Brian Mulroney is apparently sunning himself in Florida, recovering from his recent health problems and taking frequent phone calls from our new prime minister.

He is not, however, taking calls from the press.

But that’s OK. Canada’s mainstream news media, which has long seemed reticent to even touch this story — when the Globe and Mail first disclosed the fact of the $300,000 payments, it buried the revelation deep in the middle of a feature series that seemed primarily interested in exposing journalist Stevie Cameron as an RCMP source — still don’t seem interested in pursuing it.

Why is that? Good question.

Mulroney doth protest way too much

Sept. 18, 2005

So poor, misunderstood Brian Mulroney is “devastated” and “hurt” because his good friend, best-selling author Peter C. Newman, “betrayed” him. Newman’s betrayal? He assumed Mulroney meant it when he gave Newman complete and total tape-recorded access to his innermost ravings — not to mention a warehouse full of his government’s minutes and memos — so he could write the definitive, “warts and all” account of Mulroney’s prime ministership.

Mulroney didn’t really intend him to do any such thing, of course. He expected Newman to deliver a sanitized version of The Life of Brian — in which Mulroney stars as the poor electrician’s boy from Baie Comeau who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, vaulting over obstacles and villains to become the greatest prime minister Canada has ever known, better certainly than that bastard Pierre Trudeau, not to forget a primo world statesman and all-round fine fellow. The fall of the Berlin Wall? That was Brian’s doing. The invention of the Internet? Oh, sorry, that was Al Gore.

Mulroney assumed — on the reasonable basis of a career’s worth of deference from a lap-dog press corps in Ottawa — that Newman would know enough not to quote his profane and paranoid pontifications directly and, perhaps more importantly, that Newman would find a way to put Mulroney’s puffed up boasts (“Nobody has achievements like this, Peter. I can say that to you objectively. You cannot name a Canadian prime minister who has done as many significant things as I did, because there are none…”) and slimy personal attacks (Mulroney’s successor, Kim Campbell, lost the 1993 election because she was too busy “screwing around” with her Russian boyfriend) into Newman’s own well-chosen and supportive words.

Now Mulroney, through his mouthpiece, Luc Lavoie, is trying to make it sound as if the 98 recorded, transcribed interviews Mulroney had with Newman over the years were just friendly, not-for-publication chats between best buddies. “For a man like this,” Lavoie said of Newman, “to tape him without his knowledge and use it this way is nothing short of betrayal.”

At least Mulroney isn’t claiming he never met Newman, which is what he said about me after I wrote a magazine profile of him back the late seventies. The Brian Mulroney who is front and centre in Newman’s new book, The Secret Mulroney Tapes, is most definitely the man I remember from the afternoon and evening I spent listening to him rant. “If Joe Clark wins the (upcoming) election, I’ll eat this plate,” he told me over dinner. I dutifully wrote it down in my notebook while Mulroney watched me. We were most definitely on the record. A few minutes later, he was boasting that Rene Levesque’s Parti Quebecois “wouldn’t have won [the 1976 provincial] election if I was the leader” of the Tories.

After he’d had the chance to think about what he’d said, Mulroney tried to convince me not to publish the story. When it appeared in the Financial Post Magazine, in fact, he claimed he’d never even met me. (The reality was that it had taken me three months to get my audience with Mulroney; he’d even asked his good friend, Peter Newman, then the editor of Maclean’s, to vet me before he agreed to sit down with me!) Luckily for me, I had a receipt with Mulroney’s name on it to show for my time with him…

I only discovered later that the vain, profane, paranoid Mulroney I met that day was well known among the press gallery in Ottawa. But no one — until Newman — has ever written about that Mulroney.

Which makes it all the more ironic that Mulroney spews a good deal of venom in Newman’s book attacking the Ottawa press gallery for failing to appreciate his greatness. He calls them a “phony bunch of bastards,” which clearly is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

The truth is that, for most of his career, the national press gave Mulroney a free pass. Even after he left office, Mulroney has enjoyed the benefits of a quiescent press. Consider just one recent example: Mulroney has never been pressed to account for the $300,000 he accepted from Karl Heinz Schreiber, the German businessman caught up in the Airbus scandal, soon after he returned to the private sector, ostensibly to lobby on behalf of another Schreiber enterprise. The Globe and Mail, which—to its credit — broke the original story a few years ago, seemed almost embarrassed by it, and has never done any serious follow up. Neither did any other mainstream media outlet.

And this week, of course, The Globe and Mail quickly weighed in with an apologetic, puzzled editorial asking, Why Hate Mulroney So?

“Brian Mulroney deserves much better,” wrote the Globe.

With enemies like that, who needs friends?

Brian and Karl’s excellent pasta adventure

Nov. 18, 2003

At first, I thought it must be one of those legal you-can’t-say-that-or-I’ll-sue-you-for-all-you’re-worth-and-then-I’ll sue-you-for-your-grandchildren’s inheritance kinds of stories.

Sort of like the last time Brian Mulroney sued us all for $50 million bucks because the Mounties had mucked about with his good name.

Or, sort of like Charles and the servant and — Oops, we can’t talk about that either. Besides, Prince Charles has already issued a statement completely, absolutely and unequivocally denying that anything happened, even though, of course, no one had yet publicly claimed anything had happened because, if they did, they’d end up in court faster than you could say, “Charles did what! To whom?” Not that he did, of course. He said he didn’t… do … whatever it was he didn’t say he didn’t do … So…


Me too.

But not nearly as befuddled as I was last week after I read the three-word, huge-type headline slapped across the front Monday morning’s Globe and Mail.

The Globe, it seemed, had uncovered a juicy, newsy story worthy of its headline. Surely, I thought, every other media outlet will be all over this. There’ll be follow-ups. The TV talk shows will be thick with ethics experts and political scientists pontificating on the larger meaning of it all.

And… And —

Not a word. I watched the TV newscasts. Nothing. I scanned the local papers. Not a word. I even “googled” Canadian online news sites to see how they were reporting this revelation. Nada neither.

Maybe he’s filed suit already, I thought. Or gone to court to get an injunction banning further publication.

At first, I imagined I might have to write this column with a bag over my head and render that headline as “Schreiber _ Mulroney.”

Just so no one would sue me.

But then I figured I would have to make it clear that the _ didn’t stand for what Prince Charles didn’t do to the valet, or whoever it was he didn’t do it to, or with, or …

It was too confusing.

So I called a few editor friends. No, they told me, they knew of no legal reason why no one had followed up on the Globe’s story. One Halifax editor suggested it was “an old story… It pops up on the wire,” she said, “but only as ‘play’ it’s receiving [in other papers], and [Canadian Press] is not matching…”

An old story?

Where have I been?

But now that I know it’s not a legal lip-zip, let me tell you what the Globe actually said.

“Schreiber Hired Mulroney.”

Schreiber, of course, is Karlheinz Schreiber, the German-Canadian middleman who was at the centre of the infamous Airbus affair back in the mid-nineties. There were allegations he’d paid illegal commissions to senior Canadian officials to grease the sale of Airbus jets to Air Canada back in the late eighties. When the RCMP linked Mulroney to Schreiber in a letter to Swiss authorities seeking access to bank accounts it said might be connected to the deal, the former prime minister quickly launched a preemptive libel suit against the federal government. Ottawa apologized and paid Mulroney’s legal and PR fees.

During the discovery stage of the libel suit, Mulroney testified: “I never had any dealings with him [Schreiber].”

Which was technically true. He “never had” dealings while he was prime minister. But, as the Globe story publicly disclosed for the first time, “the former prime minister accepted some $300,000 in retainers” from Schreiber “shortly after he left office.”


It turns out the Globe wasn’t even the first to discover this. In fact, the National Post’s Philip Mathias had confirmed the very same story in late 2000 or early 2001, but that newspaper had refused to publish it because… well, according to the Globe, the Post was in the middle of “its campaign of bemoaning the so-called victimization of Mulroney… on the one hand, while puffing him on the other, particularly when doing so cast the current prime minister in a less positive light.”


Insert the usual disclaimers here. Mulroney claims the money was for “his assistance in promoting a fresh-cooked pasta business Schreiber had started in Canada,” was paid after Mulroney left office and was all, as the Globe notes, “perfectly legal.”

Still… It casts a new and damning light on Mulroney’s carefully parsed testimony about his relationship with Schreiber. And red-flags all sorts of ethical questions about why a former prime minister would get into business with someone with Schreiber’s controversial reputation.

Questions, one would have thought, the rest of Canada’s news media would have been eager to ask last week.

So why haven’t they?

Good question.

If Mulroney didn’t, who did? Don’t ask

(April 29, 2003)

Would that Donald Marshall, Jr., had had such good media friends in such high and mighty media places during the 11 long years the poor, young Native man spent languishing in Dorchester Penitentiary for a murder he didn’t commit.

Last week, there was much joy in national mediaville when the RCMP quietly announced it was ending, without laying any additional criminal charges, an eight-year probe into allegations kickbacks were paid to key players — including possibly even Prime Minister Brian Mulroney — in connection with the $1.8 billion sale of 34 Airbus passenger jets to then-government-owned Air Canada in 1988.

The editorial deep thinkers at the better-dead-than-Liberal-red Globe and Mail weighed in with their assessment that the whole sordid affair had been handled in an “inexcusably slipshod manner.”

Never to be out-shocked and appalled, their opposite numbers at the more-right-than-right National Post declared themselves greatly “relieved for Mr. Mulroney” that the “witch hunt” was finally over. It had all been a “baseless, unjustifiable intrusion on Mr. Mulroney’s post-PM life, one bordering on harassment,” the Post’s editorial thundered. “Mr. Mulroney is to be congratulated for the calm, gentlemanly way he has endured: He could be calling for heads to roll and for the public vaults to be opened further to pay him for his stresses. That he is not is a testament to his decency.”

Oh, puh-lease.

In 1996, Mr. Mulroney’s PR flunkies used a leaked translation of a sloppily written federal Justice Department letter to Swiss authorities — a letter, logic dictates, they probably leaked themselves — that simply asked the Swiss to cooperate with the RCMP probe into the Airbus allegations, in order to try and bludgeon the Mounties into deep-sixing their whole investigation before it even got underway.

Though it partly worked — the government was forced to apologize for suggestions in its letter and Mulroney got a cool two million of taxpayers’ dollars to pay for his lawyers and PR machine — the RCMP pressed on with its investigation anyway.

Much to the annoyance, of course, of those same national newspapers. On the basis of what seems little more than its own substantial gut feeling, the Globe in 1999 concluded that “no such crime had been committed” and the Post stomped its feet and demanded that the investigation “must be formally and publicly closed” immediately.

The irony in all of this is that neither newspaper seemed much interested in pursuing what Globe and Mail columnist Hugh Winsor decorously referred to as “loose ends.” One of those loose ends — to me, at least — remains especially intriguing: whatever happened to the millions of dollars in hidden commissions and lobbying fees Airbus and other German industries paid to Karlheinz Schreiber in order to grease Canadian sales of their products.

Schreiber, a German middleman — whose chief talent seems to be his facility for making friends with politically powerful people such as former federal cabinet ministers Liberal Marc Lalonde and Tory Elmer MacKay, and former Tory provincial premiers Frank Moores and Peter Lougheed — is currently in Canada fighting attempts to extradite him. German authorities want to bring him home to charge him with evading $20 million in taxes on the hidden commissions he received for promoting, among other ventures, the Airbus sale to Air Canada.

Why would Airbus funnel millions of dollars into the pockets of Schreiber, a man of no known airplane expertise? As a tip for being a nice guy? Or so he could spread some of that cash around to other lobbyists and the appropriate decision makers?

German prosecutors, in fact, allege that that is exactly what Schreiber did in similar situations in Germany. They claim he made payoffs to German businessmen and politicians, including former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Did he do that in Canada too? What really happened to the millions he received for each airplane Airbus sold?

We will probably never know.

While it is certainly a relief to know that the RCMP has now decided there are no grounds for charging our former prime minister in connection with any of this, it is troubling nonetheless to realize we may never find out whether any of the cash Schreiber received disappeared into the pockets of any other Canadian politician, or bureaucrat, or lobbyist.

Not that anyone in the editorial offices at the Globe or the Post is probably losing much sleep over that.

Perhaps they simply misheard that old journalistic invocation to “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.” They thought it said, “Comfort the affluent.” And they did.

So Karlheinz Schreiber wants his money back.

Jan. 6, 2000

Karlheinz, you may recall, is the generous, outgoing philanthropic German-Canadian lobbyist. . . oops, businessman, who certainly did not attempt to bribe . . . er, influence . . . uh, do anything he shouldn’t have for any Canadian politician in exchange for anything whatsoever in connection with the sale of Airbus airplanes to Air Canada back in the eighties.

The maker of those planes simply paid Karlheinz millions of dollars in commissions because he is, without a doubt, a nice guy who plays well with his political friends. It was certainly not — perish the thought — because the plane manufacturer expected him to spread any of that money around to the right people in Canada in order to grease the deals it wanted done.

Perish that thought right now.

It’s not Karlheinz’s fault he just happens to have good friends in high places. Friends like former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney and current Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien. Not to forget — lest we forget — some of his other many good political friends like former Liberal cabinet minister Marc Lalonde and former Tory cabinet minister Elmer MacKay, who each stepped forward with $100,000 to bail him out of jail last fall after Canadian authorities arrested him on a German warrant in connection with piddling allegations of tax evasion, bribery and breach of trust there.

The Germans claimed he’d fled to Canada to try and evade answering their questions about why he hadn’t paid $20 million in lawful German taxes on hidden commissions he’d received for, among other things, peddling Airbus airplanes to Canada. They wanted Canada to extradite him back to Germany so they could have a chat with him about that money.

Karlheinz says the Germans have got it all wrong. He says he came to Canada because he likes it here. And of course there’s nothing to those scurrilous allegations. But no, he doesn’t want to go back to Germany right now to set them straight.

Sounds reasonable to me. After all, if Karlheinz’s word is good enough for the editorial writers at both the Globe and Mail and the National Post, it sure as hell should be good enough for thee and me. Not to forget the RCMP

Back in October just after Schreiber’s arrest, you may recall, the Globe and the Post – putting aside their faux newspaper wars for a day in order to speak as one on this issue of pressing national concern – both demanded that the RCMP finally abandon its silly investigation to determine whether former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney or any other Canadian politician ever received bribes or kickbacks in connection with Air Canada’s purchase of 34 Airbus planes in 1988.

“No such crime was committed,” declared the Globe.

“The case must be formally and publicly closed,” harmonized the Post.

We’re sure they know what they’re talking about. Still, it’s hard for those of us in the cheap seats not to be curious about the way in which the other half of this story is currently playing itself out in Germany where Schreiber is at the centre of a scandal that threatens to lead to criminal charges against former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Kohl has been accused of accepting secret and illegal gifts, including from Karlheinz Schreiber. And there are allegations — hotly denied by all concerned, of course — that those gifts were intended to influence government decisions.

All of which sounds eerily similar to the allegations the Globe and the Post insist the RCMP is wasting its time, and our tax dollars, investigating in Canada.

The latest twist in the German version of this story came yesterday when Schreiber told the National Post he wanted a more than $750,000 political contribution he gave Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union back in 1991 returned to him immediately. (Perhaps he needs the cash to pay his lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, who promised this week to wage yet another of his famous legal wars to the death against Germany’s request to extradite Schreiber. But that’s another column for another day.)

Karlheinz insists — again — that his accusers have got it all wrong. He was simply making what he considered a normal political contribution to Kohl’s political party. There was certainly no connection whatsoever between his modest, if secret, three-quarters-of-a-million dollar gift and the fact that, one year earlier, he’d lobbied the German government to approve a $400 million armoured car sale to Saudi Arabia. How could he possibly have known a few silly buggers — including three senior party officials — would keep his cash for themselves, making his totally legitimate party contribution look like a bribe when it certainly wasn’t?

Of course he couldn’t.

That’s why he wants his money back.

And of course his was just a normal political contribution. It is apparently common practice in Germany for political donors like Karlheinz to meet their German political contacts in restaurants in small Swiss towns so they can discreetly hand over their small donations in cash stuffed into envelopes. Which can then be deposited in secret bank accounts and left to collect dust (and interest) for a year before being divvied up — in secret again — among a few party functionaries. And no one ever expects anything in return.

Only in Germany, you say? We can only hope.

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