Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Testify, when you're told to (or, Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft)

In their continuing quest to make Canada a carbon copy of the United States (except for the health care), the Conservative Party of Canada seems to have forgotten that a Parliamentary committee isn't the same as a Congressional one. Committees here do have the right to sub poena witnesses, but such power is rarely used unlike in the States. Further they do not have prosecutorial powers. I have yet to hear of anyone in Canada who was put on trial for committing perjury before Parliament -- it's par for the course in the States for lying to Congress, the most famous example being Oliver North who is still seen as a hero by neo-cons in the States for lying.

One common thing committees in both countries do share is that unlike a real criminal or civil trial, witnesses are not held in sequestration until they are called. In the court system, this practise is used in order to ensure that a witness' evidence will not be tainted by prior witnesses (although in the States, such taint is more likely with many trials being televised). In the legislative world, where most hearings are carried live on television or via streaming, people know exactly what came before them so they can shape their testimony to come.

Hence, yesterday's truly weird events at the House Ethics Committee here. One former Conservative candidate, Gary Caldwell who ran in Compton-Stanstead, knew something was terribly wrong when the party sent $37,000 to his campaign then took it back. He recognized what many other Conservatives have not -- that you can only claim the expense if you actually spend the money. Knowing he might get a 60% rebate from the feds for something he was not entitled to -- in this case, $22,200 -- he revised his report. He quit the Cons in disgust, as well as he should have.

At least he was honest about it. So were Ann Julie Fortier, Louise O'Sullivan (an ex-Lib who went to the Cons over Sponsorgate -- interesting), Richard Nadeau (now with the Bloc) and Joe Goudie (whose revelations about money he didn't spend seems to have gotten the whole investigation started). Kudos too to Liberato Martelli who refused to have a lawyer with him because, as he told the Con members, he didn't need a lawyer to "tell the truth." Ouch.

I wonder about the integrity of other candidates who didn't recognize even the scent of impropriety. I recognize this has probably happened before, with all parties and at both the federal and provincial levels (there's been a long history of keeping two sets of books, just as many truckers with priority "just in time" hauls keep two log books to fool weigh station inspectors. But the "in and out" scheme is the largest and most systematic attempt to circumvent official spending rules if Election Canada's allegations are proven to be true.

I also note that read into the record was the clerk noting that other witnesses who had been invited declined, because the Conservative Party told them to decline or ignore the invitation. And where sub poenas had to be issued, in at least one case a candidate's husband and son actually interfered with the service of the summons. If that's not contempt of Parliament I don't know what is.

It's what happened with Doug Finley that I have a hard time figuring out. He was supposed to appear on Wednesday. Instead he showed up yesterday and tried to be the first witness, attempting to make a statement that would set the ruling party's agenda for the rest of the hearings on the issue. The committee chair, Paul Szabo, politely requested Finley show up when he was scheduled. But Finley, knowing full well other witnesses who had booked their time for yesterday alone, wanted to silence them so they couldn't tell their story. Eventually Finley had to be escorted out (by force, it appears) and he said he would not be coming back. His lawyer, sitting with him, actually threw the chair he was sitting in across the room, according to Kady O'Malley (see her live blogging notes here and here -- more like live streaking since the Cons pulled their own pants down numerous times during the day).

Good riddance if Finley isn't returning. (Actually, he just might, Szabo issued a sub poena ordering Finley to show up on Wednesday as originally scheduled.)

But equally troubling is that the usual Conservatives on the committee weren't there, instead the alternates -- the B-team, if you will -- showed up, say some of my fellow bloggers (can't remember which ones, my computer partially crashed and I had to clean out my history so can't find the links anymore). Now, having an alternate isn't too unusual. Backbench MPs sit on several committees, not just one, and alternates allow the work to be spread around if two important hearings are being held at the same time; or if an opposition party leader wishes to cross-examine a minister or witness directly and at length which is almost next to impossible to do on the floor.

But every single regular member gone, or nearly every one, in favour of the alternates? Something's fishy there. Since they are possibly "weaker" members of Team Harper, it gives the senior apparatchiks a chance to manipulate their minions to attempt to obstruct the opposition parties who collectively hold a majority on the committee. And note also the Con members kept raising sub judice points of order, meaning since the matter was "before the courts" it could not be discussed in committee. Actually that's only true for Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer who is being sued by the Cons to get the money they think is owing them.

Moreover, when you determine the parameters of how your witnesses are going to testify or try to shove in a lead witness to set up the talking points, that in itself is an attempt to mislead Parliament. Where false or misleading testimony is given by a minister, or the minister is caught trying to tell a witness how to testify, Parliamentary convention is clear: The minister must offer his or her resignation. However, PMS so tightly controls his team that he will not even consider a resignation of this type. We saw Bernier resign earlier this year but that was over a security breach, not for something he said.

Many Conservatives, not just the ones who testified honestly yesterday, have quit the party over what happened and what the party's tried to do since the election. When the best you can do to prepare for the next election is to have cheesy stop action cartoons ridiculing Stéphane Dion and you continue to refuse to make an honest accounting for what money was transferred, how and when, you demonstrate that you stand against the very accountability you ran on.

Kangeroo court? Hardly. When the committee reports back to the full House, let the Conservatives try -- try -- to strike the report from the record. You may eliminate the paper record from the House, but you won't be able to destroy videotape, web archives and the memories of people who actually heard and read what was said.

Of course, the Cons have an easy way out of this. Without admitting they were wrong, they could save face by dropping the lawsuit and the people who did receive matching funds they weren't entitled to could pay them back, or the party make the payback on their behalf.

I'm not holding my breath on that one, and neither are most people including the conscience Conservatives who see "in and out" for what is really is.

UPDATE (8:18 pm EDT, 1218 GMT): Agh! It was my colleague Scott Tribe who referred to the second stringers as the B-Team, and rightly so. I also just noted at Kady's blog about Part Two yesterday that at this rate, the Libs won't need the Green Shift, just run tapes of yesterday and coming sessions of the hearings under "See We Told You So ™". Except, of course, Rush Limbaugh trademarked that expression.

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1 comment:

skdadl said...

Very fine post, Blast Furnace, just such an excellent summary and analysis of what is going on. Thanks.