OTTAWA — Rahim Jaffer settled into the august room where he used to chair Conservative caucus meetings, with a plea for the presumption of innocence, for a bit of sympathy for his difficulties, and for forgiveness for lapses of judgment.
What the ex-MP faced instead at a Commons committee Wednesday was an icy-cold disowning by his Conservative family and brutal allegations by the opposition of influence peddling, illegal lobbying and even possession of drugs.
“I think there’s the one elephant in the room … and that’s; Do you understand that your actions have tarnished the reputations of politicians from all parties, do you believe that to be true, do you get that?” Tory MP Tom Lukiwski summed up at the wrap-up of the meeting.
Jaffer, his hair clipped short and greys showing at the temples, had arrived at the government operations committee with his business partner Patrick Glemaud.
The two had been summoned to respond to questions about alleged unregistered lobbying for government environmental grants. This was the first time Jaffer had spoken publicly about any of the allegations that have been levelled against him for the past two weeks.
He talked of reputations being ruined “on the basis of rumour and unsubstantiated allegations for short-term political gain” and said he never lobbied the government on behalf of his company, never used his wife’s parliamentary perks for business — and never used illegal drugs.
Inside the room Conservative MPs who were not part of the committee streamed in and out to watch the proceedings. Current Tory caucus chair Guy Lauzon, a man who has had tension with Jaffer in the past, sat closest to him but did not ask him a single question.
Jaffer began his testimony by reminding MPs of his background as a former refugee from Uganda, a politician whose roots and beliefs did not allow him to engage in unethical or illegal behaviour.
“The ideals of freedom, democracy and rule of law are ideals that many take for granted. These were things that meant so much to us as we started our life in Canada,” he said.
Jaffer also seized the opportunity to address something that had rankled Conservatives for months: his arrest on drunk driving, drug possession and speeding charges. The serious charges had been dropped when the Crown said it did not believe it could win a conviction, and he left a courthouse earlier this year with a $500 fine for careless driving.
He had never expressed regret for the magnitude of the incident before, he did finally at the committee.
”I was careless. I had a few drinks and should have never taken the risk to operate a motor vehicle…I’ve learned my lesson,“ Jaffer said.
“I want to take this opportunity to apologize to my former colleagues for the trouble this whole episode has caused for them. I believe they know me well enough to agree this was very out of character and not within my character.”
He choked up as he apologized to his family and his wife, Helena Guergis, who lost her cabinet job only a day after the Toronto Star published a front-page story about Jaffer’s dealings with a Toronto man who later bragged to associates the former MP would open the doors to the prime minister’s office.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper accepted Guergis’ resignation from cabinet this month, suspended from the Tory caucus and referred the case to the RCMP to look into unspecified allegations involving her. Reports have suggested the allegations relate to tax evasion and compromising photographs taken in the presence of drugs and hookers.
”She’s the most important person in my life and I love her dearly and it is very unfortunate that her good name has been dragged into my problems so unfairly,” Jaffer said.
The committee began gently enough, with straightforward questions to Jaffer and Glemaud about contact they had had with Conservatives related to their company Green Power Generation.
The two men insisted that they had never been paid by any company at any time to do lobbying, nor did they ever receive any money from the government related to any project. They explained that they sought out information on the government’s Green Infrastructure Fund in order to know whether projects they were working on would be viable later on for funding.
But the tension quickly ratcheted up in the room as NDP MP Pat Martin — ironically the man who did not want the committee to disintegrate into a circus — accused Jaffer of a “paucity of ethical standards.”
Martin focused on Jaffer’s meeting on the night he was arrested last September with businessman Nazim Gillani, who had later bragged in an email of Jaffer’s useful links to the government. Jaffer told the committee that he and Glemaud never wound up doing any business with Gillani, because they didn’t see any synergy with his firm.
“You left him with a completely opposite point of view that he had hit a goldmine, he was excited,” Martin said.
“You left with a feeling of no synergy and a pocketful of cocaine, he was left with notion that you guys were going to be great business partners, and it was full steam ahead, and next stop the PMO.”
Gillani has said that his email to other business contacts had been “overly enthusiastic,” and also said there was no business arrangement with Jaffer. Gillani’s lawyer was in court north of Toronto Wednesday representing him at an unrelated fraud trial.
“You’re setting a new ethical standard now because you have no evidence of anything, and yet you’re throwing out these allegations,” said Jaffer.
Jaffer and Glemaud stumbled when the three parties began to focus closely on two main lines of questioning: statements made on Jaffer’s website and dealings with federal officials.
Jaffer’s personal website, which is no longer operation, used to feature the Conservative party logo and the statement that he provided Green Power Generation with “the business expertise in industry financing in order to help them secure support from the Canadian government…”
When Jaffer was asked specifically about the statement by Lukiwski, he at first denied the statement existed and blamed it on erroneous media reports.
But the Liberals quickly circulated copies of the webpage they had printed two weeks ago, and it was passed around the committee table.
“What bothers me more than anything is that we have you before a committee, you’ve stated as a matter of fact one thing and I have something that indicates something different,” said Tory Chris Warkentin. “This type of behaviour sullies all of our names.”
Jaffer tried to recover, insisting that his company merely advised other firms on how to access government funds but didn’t do it for them. He also said the company hadn’t actually made any money yet.
The MPs also wanted to know more about three project proposals — or executive summaries as Glemaud called them — that had made their way into the offices of Brian Jean, the parliamentary secretary who oversaw the Green Infrastructure Fund.
Jaffer had been in to see Jean a few months earlier, in what both men had described as a general conversation about the fund.
Specifically, Liberal Lynn Coady wanted to know whether a company that Guergis had pushed for in her riding was one of the companies the men had also been pushing within the government.
Glemaud at first said he didn’t have the information, then said he wasn’t sure if he could provide it because of an investigation by the lobbying commissioner, and then simply said he could not recall the names of the companies.
“I don’t believe you as far as I can throw you,” Martin told Glemaud.
The committee wound up directing the pair to produce the information within 24 hours. Conservatives circulated copies of the government’s correspondence with Green Power Generation late in the day, and the company Guergis had supported was not among the projects.
The committee will hear next week from Gillani and his business partner, former Toronto Argonaut Mike Mihelic.