Dion could welcome back some sponsorship organizers

Joan Bryden

, Last Updated: 4:28 PM ET

QUEBEC (CP) — The sponsorship scandal came back to haunt Liberals Wednesday after newly minted Leader Stephane Dion suggested at least one of the organizers disgraced by the affair should be welcomed back into the party.

Dion was forced to clarify after telling a Quebec newspaper he has no objections to Marc-Yvan Cote, a former key party organizer in eastern Quebec, being allowed to resume his Liberal membership.

He told Le Soleil that Cote’s punishment was exaggerated, that he’d recognized his error and shouldn’t be penalized for life. He stressed, however, that no decision had been made to readmit Cote and that it was up to the party president to decide.

Cote was one of 10 members banned for life from the federal party by former prime minister Paul Martin in a bid to contain the political damage from the sponsorship scandal.

The scandal — in which ad executives admitted paying millions in kickbacks to the Quebec wing of the party in return for lucrative federal sponsorship contracts — devastated the party in Quebec and ultimately helped drive the Liberals out of power.

During the Gomery inquiry into the scandal, Cote testified he received $120,000 in $100 bills from the director general of the party’s Quebec wing. He distributed that money to 12 Liberal candidates in the 1997 federal election.

Dion himself was never implicated in the scandal, although he was the unity minister when the Chretien government created the sponsorship program in the wake of the nail-biter 1995 referendum on Quebec independence. The program was supposed to help raise the federal government’s profile in Quebec.

With the election of Dion as leader last month, Liberals had hoped they’d finally turned the page on the sponsorship scandal and would be able to capitalize on their new leader’s unblemished reputation for integrity.

The ruling Tories pounced on Dion’s remarks to charge that the Liberal party remains corrupt, despite the change in leadership.

“A year ago, Canadians rejected Liberal corruption and Liberal scandal and Liberal waste and it’s clear that Mr. Dion, and the Liberal party, just doesn’t get it and didn’t understand that,” said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

“He’s made a decision to welcome back into the Liberal party disgraced organizers that were associated with the sponsorship scandal.”

Clearly worried that his remarks to Le Soleil, published Wednesday, might revive the controversy, Dion was much more guarded when he spoke to reporters at the close of a two-day Liberal caucus meeting.

He said none of the 10 expelled members has requested readmission to the party and, should any of them do so, there is a process the party would follow in determining whether to welcome them back.

“I have no recommendation to make . . . It’s not my job to make recommendation to the party through the media.”

Senator Marie Poulin, the party’s president, also stressed that Cote has not reapplied for membership. Should he or any of the other expelled members do so, she said the party would follow its normal process.

All applications are reviewed by a committee within 20 days. If an application is rejected, the applicant can appeal.

Initially, a number of Liberal MPs echoed Dion’s comments in Le Soleil, saying Cote should be welcomed back.

Montreal MP Marlene Jennings said the “public notoriety“ surrounding his testimony and expulsion from the party was punishment enough for Cote.

“He’s definitely paid for it.”

However, MPs were clearly uncomfortable about the prospect of lifting the lifetime ban on more notorious sponsorship figures such as Alfonso Gagliano, the former minister who oversaw the sponsorship program.

“It’s not my decision,” snapped Toronto MP Bill Graham, who served as interim leader during the leadership contest.

By the end of the caucus meeting, however, MPs had rolled up the welcome mat altogether.

“We’re a new party and we have to go forward with new people,” said Francis Scarpaleggia, Dion’s new Quebec lieutenant, adding that he doesn’t personally favour readmitting Cote to the party.

In the Le Soleil interview, Dion also defended Jean Pelletier, former prime minister Jean Chretien’s chief of staff, saying he had served the country well for decades.

Pelletier was fired by Martin from his job as head of Via Rail. Justice John Gomery concluded that Pelletier was responsible for the sponsorship program, although he was never directly implicated in any wrongdoing.

Pelletier is suing the government for wrongful dismissal from his Via job and has gone to court to have Gomery’s findings overturned.

Pelletier has won one round in court over his dismissal from Via and Dion told reporters he’s happy for him.

 


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