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Guergis was sunk by optics, not evidence, private eye testifies

OTTAWA - Optics, not evidence, sank the career of former Conservative cabinet minister Helena Guergis, says the private eye at the heart of the scandal.

OTTAWA - Optics, not evidence, sank the career of former Conservative cabinet minister Helena Guergis, says the private eye at the heart of the scandal.

Derrick Snowdy surprised a Commons committee Wednesday by testifying that he has no knowledge of any misbehaviour by Guergis.

The revelation raises fresh questions about why Prime Minister Stephen Harper turfed Guergis from the Conservative caucus and referred the matter to the RCMP based on evidence supplied by Snowdy.

Snowdy said he brought information to the Conservatives after learning of a business relationship between Guergis' husband, Rahim Jaffer, and a Toronto businessman with a history of aggrieved investors.

He noted that he had seen Nazim Gillani dining with the couple in Toronto, and became concerned about possible entanglements.

"Mr. Jaffer is Mr. Gillani's business partner. They are in a business relationship. So this is an issue of optics," Snowdy testified.

"When the minister for the status of women is dining in a restaurant with a man awaiting trial on serious crimes and with a history of serious criminal activity, and an escort ... given the recent attention she had received, you tell me how would the Hill here have responded to that photograph or that video showing up?"

That "recent attention" was largely related to an angry outburst at the Charlottetown airport in February, in which Guergis lashed out at security and airline staff.

Harper removed Guergis from the Conservative caucus on April 9 after Snowdy had met with party lawyer Arthur Hamilton — the first of four meetings. Harper cited "serious allegations" and referred the matter to the RCMP. He refused to provide detail.

Guergis has said neither Harper nor Hamilton have told her specifically what the allegations were, although she said Harper referred to "criminal behaviour."

Snowdy, a card-carrying Conservative, described how Hamilton asked him a series of specific questions.

"Mr. Hamilton asked me, 'Is it possible that somebody can produce a photograph or a record whereby the minister, her husband and his business partner who is awaiting trial on fraud ... are dining together?' I said Yes."

The Conservatives were concerned about another set of optics Wednesday — the revelation by Snowdy that Liberal party president Alfred Apps had once been retained by Gillani as his lawyer when Apps was at the Toronto firm Fasken Martineau.

"Mr. Apps was the getaway driver for Mr. Gillani," Snowdy said of the lawyer's role in a particular case.

But Apps said after meeting with Gillani in late 2006, a junior partner reviewed Gillani's case and they determined they could not act in the matter. The contact lasted a matter of weeks.

Harper's current chief of staff, Guy Giorno, was working at the firm at the same time.

"Since then, I've seen emails that (Gillani) has sent out to people years later suggesting that he was plugged into this big player on Bay Street, Alfred Apps," said the bemused lawyer.

"This was recently. I didn't get these until after this all broke. I hadn't seen him since late 2006."

Apps said when Gillani's name was splashed across The Toronto Star on April 8, he said he contacted the office of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to let him know he once met the man but that he never did any work for him.

Gillani had once emailed other business contacts, bragging that Jaffer had opened the doors to the Prime Minister's Office for them. He later said those were "overly enthusiastic."

Gillani, who called Snowdy's testimony Wednesday a mix of innuendo and misinformation, said the retainer he had initially sent Apps was quickly sent on to another law firm. That second law firm eventually dropped Gillani for failure to pay fees.

Gillani also said he felt badly for Guergis, who he says he only met once.

"Guergis is somebody who doesn't deserve any of this... whatever I'm assumed to have done, doesn't involve her," he Gillani told CBC TV.

Giorno's name came up during Wednesday's testimony, as Snowdy described a conversation with a person from the office of the ethics commissioner on the day Guergis was removed from caucus. That ethics staffer read to him contents of a letter signed by Giorno, with a list of allegations against Guergis.

Snowdy said he was angry about the content of the letter, which he says was based on a Toronto Star newspaper report, and not the information he had passed on to the party lawyer.

The questions around Jaffer's dealings with Gillani, and what sorts of promises they were making to other companies, continue to hang over the couple.

Snowdy described how Gillani would approach companies with a "pump-and-dump" scheme that involved drumming up investors for them, taking them public, and then exiting the project at the most profitable moment.

He alleged that Jaffer and his business partner, Patrick Glemaud, had promised to help access government funds for different firms, a fact that would then leverage more investment and line their pockets in the process.

He also said Glemaud coached the company HD Retail Solutions on how to present their business in a more "green" light so it would be more eligible for funding. An executive from the now defunct company has offered similar take on Jaffer and Glemaud's activities.

"I have serious concerns about the structure of the deal that we being negotiated with Mr. Jaffer and Mr. Gillani," Snowdy said.

Jaffer and Glemaud have denied any improper lobbying of officials. They said they approached officials to inquire about a government fund and its terms and conditions.

Government documents have since revealed that Jaffer and Glemaud approached staff in at least seven ministerial offices. Jaffer also met with one official in his wife's office, and used an email address assigned to her parliamentary office while communicating with some staff.

In a television interview this week, Guergis said she knew little about her husband's business activities. She also said he did not use her office for his work.

 
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