Chuck Guité's Strong Stand

SO MUCH ANTICIPATION, so little payoff. Chuck Guité, the former bureaucrat who ran the federal government's now-notorious sponsorship program, was the last of the star witnesses the House public accounts committee was waiting to question in its hearings into the controversy.

Chuck Guité's Strong Stand

SO MUCH ANTICIPATION, so little payoff. Chuck Guité, the former bureaucrat who ran the federal government's now-notorious sponsorship program, was the last of the star witnesses the House public accounts committee was waiting to question in its hearings into the controversy. Opposition MPs hoped Guité would finally provide them with clear testimony proving the government used the program to funnel money to Liberal-friendly advertising firms. Instead, he repeatedly denied there was any political interference in choosing the Montreal agencies that profited by splashing the Maple Leaf logo around Quebec on Ottawa's behalf, in the wake of the too-close-for-comfort 1995 REFERENDUM. As Conservative MP Jason Kenney left the hearing room last week, after Guité stood his ground through hours of sometimes intense grilling, he summed up glumly, "It wasn't the big day we were expecting."

In fact, it was only the latest in a series of frustrating days for the committee. Previous key witnesses - Jean Pelletier, André Ouellet, Alfonso Gagliano - also held up pretty well. Like Guité, each had his weak moments, but none handed the committee a smoking gun. Guité displayed a much surer grasp of the fine points of federal contracting policy than the MPs trying to catch him out. When they quoted from Auditor General Sheila Fraser's February report, which concluded the government didn't get its money's worth for $100 million that went to advertising and communications firms under the program, Guité was ready with a defiant reply. He called Fraser's damning conclusions "misleading." On her core complaint that millions were spent with scant record-keeping, Guité said that was meant to thwart separatist attempts to gather intelligence about federal strategy in Quebec through access-to-information requests: "The less we have on file, the better."

Guité did come with a complaint about political interference, but it had nothing to do with Fraser's report. He said the office of Paul Martin, then finance minister, tried to get more agencies added to the list of those considered for certain contracts. As well, he said Martin's former chief of staff, Terrie O'Leary, recommended Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a consulting firm close to Martin, for a research contract. Opposition MPs jumped on the chance to accuse the Prime Minister of improper meddling, but the charges, even if true, may be too tame to inflict much lasting damage. As for the committee's bid to get to the bottom of the corruption strongly suggested by Fraser's report, its hearings have instead often turned into a forum for those - like Guité - who argue this scandal isn't so scandalous. Fraser is slated to testify again May 3 to answer questions now swirling about her findings. Still, expectations are shifting from the floundering MPs to Justice John Gomery, appointed by Martin to conduct a judicial inquiry into the affair. Gomery won't begin hearing witnesses until next fall. Will Canadians still be listening?

Maclean's May 3, 2004