Cogger Convicted of Influence Peddling

Michel Cogger fell to earth last week. It has been a long, agonizing descent. The portly, peppery Tory senator and lawyer once helped run federal election campaigns, had the ear of prime minister Brian Mulroney, and the trust of legal clients like the shadowy Austrian businessman Walter Wolf. Driving his late-model Mercedes-Benz coupe, heli-skiing in Austria and entertaining lavishly in his three homes, Cogger embodied the heady early Mulroney years. Now 59, his influence and homes are gone, and he drives a beat-up 10-year-old compact car. And last week, the ultimate disgrace: the Quebec court convicted him of influence peddling. "I don't know whether I can bounce back from this," a humbled Cogger told friends. "It might be possible for someone who is 20, but maybe not when you are 50 or 60. I am finding it very difficult just to function."

There remains the option of an appeal. But after several years of fighting the charges against him, Cogger admits the financial pressures are "immense." The Supreme Court of Canada, meanwhile, has already had a say in his case. In July, 1997, it ordered the latest trial after Quebec courts had twice cleared him of illegally accepting $212,000 from a computer entrepreneur seeking $45 million in government grants to launch a new silicon chip plant in Quebec in the late 1980s. Jail seems unlikely, since a fine or community work is the normal sentence for white-collar criminals. (Pre-sentencing arguments are scheduled to be heard this week.) But Cogger could become the first person in history to be ousted from the Red Chamber under a constitutional subsection that says senators' seats become vacant if they are "convicted of a felony or any infamous crime." Meanwhile, another Conservative senator, Eric Berntson, is awaiting trial early next year on charges of fraud and breach of trust relating to his days as deputy premier of Saskatchewan in the 1980s.

For critics of the upper chamber, the Cogger affair has provided fresh ammunition. "It's a sick, sick place," crowed Reform party House Leader Deborah Grey. Earlier this year, the Senate was dogged by the Andrew Thompson case. Bad enough that the 73-year-old Ontario senator, who lives in Mexico, took his seat only 12 times between June, 1990, and December, 1997. But Thompson, a former Ontario Liberal leader, fought to hold onto his $64,000-a-year paycheque, while his fellow senators stripped him of his Ottawa office and secretary and finally forced him to resign.

The Senate seems unable to avoid controversy. Last March, Reform Leader Preston Manning questioned the appointment to the Senate of British Columbia's Ross Fitzpatrick, a close friend and former business associate of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who in 1987 - when Chrétien was out of politics - arranged for the future prime minister to buy 10,000 shares in his company for $8 each, at a time when the stock was trading in the $12 range - a legal if friendly deal. (A week later, Chrétien sold half those shares for about $17 each.) And last month, loud cries went up in Ottawa with reports that Liberal Senator Alasdair Graham, government leader in the upper house, had arranged for former Pierre Trudeau cabinet minister Allan MacEachen to remain at taxpayers' expense in a suite of offices on Parliament Hill almost two years after his retirement from the Senate at age 75.

Few observers would disagree that the Senate, which must approve any bill before it becomes law, can play a useful role by clarifying, simplifying and occasionally even halting flawed legislation. But the litany of bad press plays into the hands of the Reform party, for whom a Triple-E Senate - elected, effective and equal - is bedrock party policy. Cogger "is another walking, living argument on why the place should be reformed from top to bottom," Manning told Maclean's last week.

The New Democratic Party, meanwhile, wants the Senate abolished altogether. But the western provinces see reform of the upper chamber as a way to increase their clout in Ottawa. In 1989, Alberta staged an unofficial Senate election - the first and so far only one in Canadian history. Then-Prime Minister Mulroney refused to appoint the winner, Reformer Stanley Waters, to the upper chamber until June, 1990, when he was attempting to rally support for the Meech Lake accord. Alberta now plans to spend $2.5 million to hold elections for two vacant Senate seats next fall - and then pressure Chrétien into appointing the winners. And recent polls in British Columbia and Manitoba show both provinces want to elect their next senators.

Cogger's cautionary tale is the type that would only reinforce that trend. He owes his Senate seat to a friendship with Mulroney forged while they were both law students at Quebec's Laval University in the early 1960s. (Other Laval law students at the time included Tory Senator Michael Meighen, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, Peter White, now one of media mogul Conrad Black's closest business associates and a former Mulroney adviser, and Bernard Roy, the Tory prime minister's principal secretary.) In the years that followed, Cogger ran Mulroney's failed 1976 leadership bid, then helped lead the 1982 movement that ousted Joe Clark as Tory leader and installed Mulroney in the leader's chair a year later.

No one was surprised in 1986 when Mulroney named the ebullient bilingual backroom operator to the Senate. But in 1991, the RCMP laid charges alleging that the senator had been pocketing payments from Guy Montpetit, an old law client, who wanted him to use his influence and contacts to get government grants. In 1993, the Quebec court acquitted Cogger, deciding that his actions were not motivated by criminal intent; in 1996, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the decision. But last July, the Supreme Court quashed those earlier rulings and ordered a new trial.

Now, Cogger seems all but broken by the seven-year court battle and the public humiliation of his conviction. He has told friends that he is "stressed out" and "devastated" - and has no idea what his next move will be. His fellow senators, meanwhile, are on the defensive. "The Senate cannot be blamed for the foibles of its members," stressed Alberta Conservative Senator Ron Ghitter last week. "To focus on the Senate simply because of things like Cogger is unfair." But perfectly understandable - considering the way things have gone lately for the upper chamber.

Maclean's June 15, 1998