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Was Guergis given the benefit of the doubt?

Former cabinet minister Helena Guergis is denying allegations of drug use brough forward by a private investigator.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In a government town that churns out rumours like clockwork, the Prime Minister's Office is continually dealing with gossip involving ministers and MPs.

But as details are emerging about last week's cabinet exit of Helena Guergis, questions are growing over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's handling of the second-hand allegations about the former minister's conduct.

A key concern is whether Ms. Guergis was given the benefit of the doubt that would have been afforded to another minister, or whether Mr. Harper simply used the first opportunity to get rid of his increasingly troublesome minister of state for the status of women.

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The Harper government has emphasized the credibility and the seriousness of the information that was referred to the RCMP and the Ethics Commissioner, and the celerity with which the Prime Minister acted upon receiving it.

"He acted responsibly, he acted quickly and he acted with high ethical standards," Transport Minister John Baird said during Thursday's Question Period.

But it now seems that the Prime Minister's Office relied on hearsay evidence relayed by private investigator Derrick Snowdy, all the while offering little or no opportunity to Ms. Guergis to rebut the allegations. The original information arrived last Thursday, and Ms. Guergis was on her way out of government and the Conservative caucus by midday on Friday, with the government refusing to provide an explanation to the public.

Several government officials said that Ms. Guergis was already vulnerable because of past controversies, including a recent temper tantrum at a Prince Edward Island airport, and that a more senior minister would have been given more opportunity to defend herself.

A former chief of staff in the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, senator Percy Downe, added that the PMO is continually dealing with innuendo and hearsay about cabinet members, and that it must strive to "separate the rumours from the facts."

"You can't be running to the Prime Minister with every rumour because he would not get much done in his day," he said in an interview.

Mr. Downe said that when serious concerns arose, he always checked out the source of the information, while providing ministers or MPs with an opportunity to explain themselves.

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"I would always call the person myself, tell them the allegation and hear their side of the story," he said. "At that point, I would have some kind of independent confirmation of the allegations."

In a statement yesterday, Ms. Guergis's lawyer said she is denying the allegations that were brought forward by Mr. Snowdy, who said he acquired the information as he investigated one of the business associates of her husband, ex-Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer.

"Ms. Guergis vigorously denies all of this man's bizarre claims, and looks forward to helping the RCMP demonstrate that they are completely false," said lawyer Howard Rubel.

As it stands, the greatest concern facing the Conservative government would involve improper lobbying by Mr. Jaffer, especially if it led to government funding. A senior government official, speaking on background, insisted nothing of that nature occurred.

Mr. Jaffer did send three packages to the government promoting initiatives connected to Green Power Generation Corp., of which he is a partner. It is not, on its face, lobbying to promote one's own company. In any case, no funds were granted.

A parliamentary committee will start looking into allegations of unregistered lobbying next week in relation to Mr. Jaffer's business activities since he lost his seat in the 2008 election. The committee will hear on April 28 from Nazim Gillani, the businessman who was involved in preliminary discussions with Mr. Jaffer and was the target of Mr. Snowdy's investigation.

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"He is anxious to tell his side of the story," said Brian Kilgore, a spokesman for Mr. Gillani.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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