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Martin cabinet avoids any whiff of scandal

Wednesday, July 21, 2004 - Page A5

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OTTAWA -- Paul Martin's new cabinet bore the hallmarks of a government still tinged with the sponsorship scandal: The clean hands of a new Liberal were brought in to handle the issue, and a minister who had faced opposition accusations of involvement was kicked out.

With Mr. Justice John Gomery scheduled to open a parliamentary inquiry on the scandal in September, Mr. Martin's choice of ministers suggested that handling the issue was a concern in constructing his cabinet.

Scott Brison, who crossed over from the Tories to the Liberals only last December, now becomes the government point man on the issue as Public Works Minister, sparking senior Liberals to quietly boast that the opposition will not be able to dent a minister who can have no connection to a party scandal.

And former Privy Council president Denis Coderre, who had personal and employment ties to firms connected with the sponsorship program but always adamantly maintained he was not involved in the scandal, saw his cabinet career cut off.

Although Mr. Martin insisted that Mr. Coderre's firing was merely a result of difficult choices in forming a cabinet, sources said that he was asked to step aside from the cabinet to inoculate the government from any whiff of scandal in the event his name was raised in testimony or he was asked to testify himself.

A spokesman for Mr. Martin, Scott Reid, dodged the question of whether Mr. Coderre had been asked to step aside pending the Gomery inquiry.

But he said the scandal, and the inquiry, were not the reasons Mr. Coderre did not make the cabinet list.

"It's unrelated to any events. It's a difficult personnel choice that the Prime Minister had to make."

Mr. Coderre has said he would be happy to testify and maintained he has no involvement in the scandal.

But his personal friendship with Claude Boulay, president of Groupe Everest, an ad firm which handled a large portion of the business under the government's $250-million sponsorship program, became a public issue when it was revealed that he had temporarily stayed at Mr. Boulay's home when he was a backbench MP.

And his pregovernment stint working for Groupe Polygone, a Montreal magazine publisher that received almost $40-million in sponsorship funds, also provoked opposition questions, but no evidence of his involvement in their sponsorship deals.

Mr. Coderre, who served in Jean Chrétien's cabinet since 1999 and was reappointed to cabinet by Mr. Martin last December, is a strong political organizer whose skills would normally be considered valuable after the Liberals took a beating in Quebec in the June 28 election.

The Bloc Québécois quickly said that his firing was because of the sponsorship scandal and asked why he was included in Mr. Martin's first cabinet in December.

"His non-appointment is an avowal from Mr. Martin," said Michel Gauthier, the Bloc Québécois House Leader.

"What did Mr. Martin learn that he did not already know that made him leave Mr. Coderre out of cabinet?"

But one opposition sport -- asking Liberal ministers what they knew about abuses in the sponsorship program -- will be hobbled by the appointment of Mr. Brison.

Mr. Brison has virtually no Liberal Party history and comes into the issue without facing accusations of connections to those involved.

Yesterday, he said only that he would allow Judge Gomery's inquiry to run its course.

Both he and the Prime Minister delivered the same response when asked to comment on the fact that the government will pay for the legal fees for appearances at the Gomery inquiry by Chuck Guité, the senior civil servant who has been charged with fraud-related offences connected to the sponsorship program -- that it is standard practice.

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