Friday, August 10, 2007

Could Harper be asked, under oath, about $50k pay off?

PM enjoys no privilege in candidacy case: expert; Court to hear claim today that Harper needn't testify

Tim Naumetz, OTTAWA CITIZEN, Aug. 10, 2007

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no legal ground to claim parliamentary privilege prevents him from being compelled to testify in a libel action he faces from a former Conservative over the past federal election, says an expert on parliamentary rules.

A court hearing is scheduled today where Mr. Harper's legal counsel will argue the prime minister cannot be forced to answer questions or swear testimony in the lawsuit by Ottawa lawyer Alan Riddell.

The hearing is the latest in a string of court arguments and sworn examinations sparked by Mr. Riddell's claim that Mr. Harper and Conservative party president Don Plett defamed him over his decision to step aside as an election candidate at the party's request.

Mr. Riddell reached an agreement with the party to give up his quest for the nomination in Ottawa South as long as the Conservatives compensated him for about $50,000 in costs associated with his nomination campaign and successful appeals of earlier party decisions to disqualify him as a candidate.

Mr. Riddell, who lost a bid to win the riding as a Conservative in the 2004 election, gave in to party requests that he step aside in favour of star candidate Allan Cutler, a former public servant whose internal complaints about questionable contracts led to a public furore and an inquiry into the sponsorship scandal.

But after Mr. Riddell publicly confirmed he had agreed to step aside, Mr. Harper and Mr. Plett told reporters there was no agreement between the party and Mr. Riddell.

Superior Court Justice Denis Power earlier this year ruled there was an agreement, and said the party's claim that Mr. Riddell had breached an implicit confidentiality clause did not nullify the agreement.

Despite the favourable court ruling for Mr. Riddell, the prime minister and the party have so far failed to reach an out-of-court settlement with Mr. Riddell, and Mr. Harper instead plans to argue he cannot be compelled to answer Mr. Riddell's allegations directly while Parliament is in session.

But parliamentary expert Joe Maingot, whose book on the subject of parliamentary privilege has become a reference text for parliamentarians as well as lawyers, says the protection is not available to MPs who are being sued or are part of a legal action.

"A member is elected to serve in Parliament," Mr. Maingot said. "What he says and does in Parliament is immune. Outside, he's like everybody else."

Mr. Maingot said parliamentary privilege protects only sitting MPs from being forced to testify as witnesses in cases involving someone else.

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