Published On Wed Mar 10 2010
Former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, 38, leaves court March 9, 2010 after pleading guilty to careless driving.ANDREW WALLACE/TORONTO STAR
Justice advocates and opposition politicians are demanding an explanation after former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer received a $500 slap on the wrist for careless driving, a muted conclusion to his highly publicized drunk-driving and cocaine-possession charges.
Crown attorney Marie Balogh said the initial charges were withdrawn for "significant legal reasons" and there was no reasonable prospect of conviction, but refused to elaborate outside the Orangeville courtroom.
"I'm sure you can recognize a break when you see one," Justice Douglas Maund told Jaffer after the former politician and anti-drug activist pleaded guilty to careless driving.
The so-called "break," and the government silence on the outcome, left the federal Conservatives vulnerable to charges that their tough law-and-order program does not extend to one of their own.
"There isn't a Canadian, I think, in the country, with perhaps the exception of Mr. Jaffer, who doesn't feel that what happened today appears on the surface to be favourable treatment," NDP justice critic Joe Comartin, who is also a lawyer, told reporters Tuesday.
"The real problem here, the real injustice on the surface is why would they have not proceeded with a trial. A one-line explanation from the prosecutor that she felt there wasn't sufficient evidence to get a conviction is simply not sufficient in these circumstances, especially with regard to the fact it's admitted he failed the breathalyzer," he said.
Police sources say the roots of the withdrawal of the more serious charges against Jaffer lie in the early hours of Sept. 11 after the former politician was pulled over for driving 93 km/h in a 50 km/h zone in Palgrave, east of Orangeville.
A rookie Ontario Provincial Police officer failed to follow proper procedures during a strip search of Jaffer, 38, causing the Crown to conclude the case would be open to a Charter challenge, the Star has learned. While the OPP opposed Jaffer only being charged with careless driving, the Crown took a steadfast position, sources say.
Brendan Crawley, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General, said in an email that the case was "carefully reviewed" and there were "issues related to the evidence" that influenced the Crown's decision for a plea resolution.
In Parliament, government critics called the Conservatives hypocritical for promoting an aggressive "tough-on-crime" agenda but staying quiet when it wasn't applied to one of their members.
When Liberal MP Anita Neville (Winnipeg Centre) asked Justice Minister Rob Nicholson why a self-professed law-and-order government would tolerate such an affront to the justice system, Nicholson accused her of hitting a new low.
"The Conservatives are conspicuously silent, only when the law is being flouted by one of their own," Neville said.
In the lead-up to the 2008 election, Jaffer took a hard line on drug abuse and drug dealers. His campaign ran radio ads chiding NDP Leader Jack Layton for comments years earlier that Jaffer cast as broad support for marijuana use.
The spots said, in part: "Edmontonians understand how difficult it is to make sure our children make the right choices, especially on serious issues like drug use. The Conservative party supports drug-free schools and getting tough with drug dealers who sell illegal drugs to children. Don't let our schools go up in smoke. Vote Conservative."
The head of the John Howard Society took a different tack from political critics, saying Nicholson should take an honest look at the Jaffer case and apply its lessons to the Conservative criminal justice agenda. "It's really easy to disparage discretion for judges – until you need it," Craig Jones told The Canadian Press in an interview.
Jones, who advocates for "effective, just and humane responses to the causes and consequences of crime," contrasted the treatment of Jaffer to the Harper government's push to create mandatory minimum sentences for a whole host of offences.
Conservatives, up to and including the Prime Minister, have publicly criticized judges for sentences they deemed too light.
But on Tuesday several Conservative MPs stressed that the Jaffer court proceedings were in Ontario jurisdiction and had nothing to do with the federal government.
The charges were one of several public embarrassments for Jaffer and his wife, junior cabinet minister Helena Guergis.
Late last month, Guergis issued her own public apology for "speaking emotionally" to staff at Charlottetown airport. Witnesses say she arrived at the last minute, and screamed obscenities at security staff who asked her to remove her boots.
Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley said plea deals are the normal purview of Crown and defence, adding that he didn't know why the charges against Jaffer were dropped.
Justice advocate Joe Wamback said it should be the Crown's obligation to explain why charges are dropped or lessened.
"We need a justice system that is transparent if we want a justice system that the public can believe in," said Wamback, founder of the Canadian Crime Victim Foundation.
Outside the courthouse, Jaffer said he was relieved the ordeal was over and apologized for his actions.
"I know I should have been more careful. Once again, I apologize for that and I take full responsibility for my careless driving," he said.
Wearing a dark suit, with his hair gelled, a confident Jaffer was flanked by family and his lawyer, Howard Rubel, as he spoke briefly before being whisked away in an SUV.
Jaffer had been spending the summer an hour north of Toronto in Angus, the hometown of his wife. He was returning from the city when his grey Ford Escape was intercepted by an OPP officer.
According to an agreed statement, the officer smelled alcohol on Jaffer's breath. He told her he had consumed two beers two hours earlier. However, his breathalyzer test measured more than the legal limit.
Jaffer will pay his $500 fine within the next month. He has already given $500 to the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Jaffer first won the Edmonton-Strathcona seat at the age of 25 in 1997 and quickly rose through the party ranks. When he was re-elected in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper named him chair of the Conservative caucus. He held the riding until he was unseated by an NDP candidate in 2008.
He offered an emotional apology in the House of Commons in 2001 after one of his aides was caught impersonating him on a radio show while Jaffer was busy elsewhere.
With files from Richard Brennan, Rob Ferguson and The Canadian Press
Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre.
Readers may not like this commentary but here it is.
As much as this stinks of corruption in the Ontario Justice System, there is some merit to the search, and apparently where the cocaine was located that defeats a charge of possession of cocaine.
What is not obvious, is any grounds for dropping the speeding charge which would have been a very serious charge. The drink driving charge again, where was the evidence of a lack of evidence.
The omission of those facts, is in itself a damming indictment of corruption in Ontario Justice.
What is also damming is the utter silence coming from Rob Nicolson and Mr. Harper.
The John Howard Society are the real winners who were able to rub the government's noses in
their own dirty mess of interfering with judicial discretion in sentencing.
Here is another interesting comment on Justice Douglas Maund!
"Well, turns out the judge in the case, Doug Maund is a long-time Tory:
When Brian Mulroney was prime minister, Maund was the chief of staff to Mulroney's health minister Perrin Beatty.
He backed Kim Campbell in the leadership race to succeed Mulroney
He was appointed to the Ontario bench in October, 2000 by the Ontario attorney general of the day, none other than current federal finance minister Jim Flaherty. "
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There's a string that Nhic asked for. Pull it and the whole thing will come apart!