From the sleazy heart of the military industrial complex, where quiet money seals the deals and success depends on good connections and a low public profile, Karlheinz Schreiber sprang into the Canadian limelight last month.
Schreiber is an old Conservative backroom boy, as well as an international arms dealer, and a professional greaser of the wheels of commerce.
His wheeling and dealing helped bring former Conservative leader Brian Mulroney to power.
Mulroney was prime minister for nine scandal-ridden years, from 1984 to 1993.
In 1988, Air Canada — then a Crown corporation — purchased 34 airliners from German manufacturer Airbus Industrie.
Schreiber brokered the deal, and claims to have spent $20 million in schmiergelder, or grease money, (his term) to defeat a bid by US competitor Boeing.
In 1975, Mulroney learned that the RCMP was investigating the Airbus contract, and had named him in a request for information to Swiss authorities.
The former prime minister sued Canada for $50 million, claiming damage to his reputation. He finally settled out of court for $2.1 million.
During that court case, Mulroney claimed that he hardly knew Schreiber, had met him once or twice for a cup of coffee, and had never had any dealings with him.
In fact, Schreiber had met Mulroney in three separate luxury hotel rooms, handing over $100,000 in cash each time.
Mulroney had known Schreiber for more than a decade by the time he pocketed those envelopes.
Schreiber had raised funds for Mulroney‘s campaign to become prime minister, and helped engineer his defeat of Joe Clark for the Conservative leadership in 1983.
It’s hard not to be reminded of the Liberal sponsorship scandal at this point.
If there was one thing that brought down the Martin government, it was the stink of cash. There was just something so underworld about all those fat envelopes.
The Mulroney story reeks of cash too, tinged with a strong hint of cover-up and lies.
According to Stevie Cameron‘s 1995 book, On The Take, Mulroney was the recipient of regular cash payments throughout his term as prime minister. Delivered to his wife, Mila, the cash came from the Conservative party, as a top-up to the prime ministerial salary.
Every week or two, the Mulroneys’ chef would pick up an envelope of cash, usually between $8,000 and $12,000, and deliver it to Canada’s Shopper in Chief.
Mulroney flatly denied that the Conservative party was supplementing his salary, so where was all this cash coming from?
Is this what Mulroney means when he speaks of “protecting his family”?
Only a few cabinet ministers still remain from Mulroney’s days, only a handful of the old power-brokers still broker power.
If only they hadn’t tried to cover it up, the Airbus scandal might have passed today’s Conservatives by altogether.
But they did.
Schreiber is awaiting extradition to Germany on schmiergelder charges there.
If he is extradited now, the entire affair will be swept back under the rug. Canada will never know where Schreiber’s $20 million went, why he paid Mulroney $300,000 in cash, or what he means when he says he has a story to tell that’s “bigger than Airbus.”
Canada’s minister of justice has absolute power over who is and is not extradited.
The current Justice minister, Rob Nicholson, spent last week trying his hardest to get Schreiber out of the country.
Nicholson’s claim that he has no power to prevent the principal witness from leaving the scene defies credulity.
Had it not been for unrelenting pressure, applied mainly by the media and the NDP’s Pat Martin, Schreiber would be in a German jail this morning, and that would be the end of that, as far as Canada is concerned.
Instead, he’s testifying before a Commons standing committee.
The ethics committee will never get to the bottom of Schreiber’s story, but at least it’s keeping him in Canada.
What remains to be seen is how far the Conservatives will go to get rid of him before they’re forced to call a proper judicial inquiry.
Unless there’s a very full public hearing, with a mandate to dig all the way back into Schreiber’s earliest dealings in Canada, and to trace all of the grease money and where it ended up, we will never know why the Harper government tried so hard to stifle this investigation.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.