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April 14, 2010

What's behind Harper's heavy hand on Guergis file?

Geoffrey Stevens

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Stephen Harper is not an easy read.

That may be the understatement of the political year. With rare exceptions, he is a closed book. He is focused, disciplined, and, if he has emotions, he doesn’t show them.

Some reporters described the prime minister as angry, even “seething,” on Friday when he fired Helena Guergis from the cabinet, bounced her from the Conservative caucus, and referred “serious allegations” about her to both the Commons ethics commissioner and the RCMP.

Harper must have been upset; it is almost unheard of for a PM to set the Mounties on one of his own ministers — but if he was “seething,” it did not come across in the TV coverage. He looked and sounded like a manager who had had a disappointing day at the office, but not a traumatic day.

So why did the PM use a 10-tonne hammer to squash a minor minister whom his press secretary had publicly defended just 24 hours earlier?

Harper won’t say. He was elected in 2006 on a promise of transparency and accountability, but apparently that promise does not extend to scandals at the cabinet table.

His stone wall cannot hold. Too many people know bits and pieces of the tale. While you are reading this, dozens of Ottawa reporters are beavering away, talking to their sources in the cabinet, PMO, Tory caucus (where Guergis was a much unloved member) and the RCMP. And the opposition parties will be all over the case when the Commons meets today.

This much seems clear. Guergis was not dumped because she threw a hissy fit at the Charlottetown airport or because she had staffers and others write fawning letters to newspapers. Nor was she zapped because her husband, former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, had a spot of trouble with the police involving drinking, driving and cocaine.

These incidents of bad temper and worse judgment did not endear her to anyone. But there is much more than that. What we are looking at here is an influence-peddling scandal.

The peddler was Jaffer, who boasted to his sleazy business associates that he had a pipeline to the PMO and could arrange low-cost government loans for green energy projects. He was still handing out his MP’s business card, even though he lost his Edmonton seat in the 2008 election.

An unregistered lobbyist, he had use of one of his wife’s government-issue BlackBerrys and of her parliamentary email account (which is not prohibited and is apparently not uncommon among spouses of MPs).

The story broke in the Toronto Star last Thursday morning — a story with all the titillating trimmings (lavish dining, booze, cocaine and even “busty hookers”). The story caused a sensation in Ottawa. Even so, Harper sent Dimitri Soudas, his press secretary, out to defend Guergis that afternoon.

It was later Thursday, we are told, that disturbing information came to the PMO’s attention that led to her demise the next day.

What might that information be? We don’t know because the prime minister won’t say, but I have two suspicions. The first is that the PMO concluded that Guergis was more than an innocent bystander in her husband’s lobbying efforts — that she knew, and condoned, his use of her parliamentary and cabinet credentials to impress potential business investors.

On the weekend, there was a report that Guergis had attended a meeting with Jaffer and an associate of his who claimed to have been a banker for the Hells Angels. We don’t know what was discussed or whether Guergis herself was aware of the associate’s background.

My other suspicion concerns the $880,000 mortgage that Guergis secured for her home in Ottawa without, apparently, making any down payment. That could be a matter for the Commons ethics commissioner. In fact, the Liberals last Tuesday asked the ethics commissioner to look into the mortgage transaction. It was probably part of Harper’s request on Friday, too.

Guergis is finished, but the scandal is just unfolding.

The KW Record, April 12, 2010.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

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