By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
On a Tuesday January evening in Montreal, Conservative party banners hung alongside gold dragons against a red wall at the Ruby Rouge restaurant in Montreal.
With then-foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier looking on from the head table, the Conservative candidate for Papineau told those gathered for the fundraising dinner that he wanted them to meet someone “special” who would bring “prosperity” to the riding, according to a video of the January 15, 2008 event.
“Successful businessman, kind-hearted human being who cares for others…he desires to bring prosperity to the riding as well as Canada. His name is Michael Chamas, please,” said Mustaque Sarker as he stretched out his arm toward Chamas, who sat at the table next to Bernier’s.
“He’s going to make strong this country’s economy, he is going to bring jobs, prosperity, that all of us need as citizens of this country,” said Sarker, a photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper stuck to the front of his lectern.
Small children cooed, glasses clinked, forks scraped plates and a murmur of low voiced conversations drifted like light vapour over the packed, multi-ethnic crowd as Sarker plodded on in his speech about cutting taxes and making children safe.
After Sarker finished, Bernier took the microphone.
Sarker stood to Bernier’s left, and Brossard-La Prairie Conservative candidate Morris Brossard stood to his right.
“In politics, what we need, we need the support of people who believe in themselves, because in the end you will create wealth, you will create new jobs, you will create something that is important to you,” said Bernier. “And at the end it will change the society. What we try to do together is to change things and we want our country to be one of the best.”
Chamas took the podium next to announce that his company, Global Village, would be creating 300,000 jobs in Canada and in the Middle East.
“I guess the minister of foreign affairs was in the United Arab Emirates and you’ve seen the presentation of what this country is going through,” said Chamas. “Our company is in the process today of creation over in Dubai, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait the possibility for over 300,000 employees in total between Canada and this part of the world. I will be looking for some support….”
Chamas then presented Bernier with a gift box. Inside was a golf-shirt, hat and a pen set emblazoned with the name of his company, Global Village.
The two men posed with the box as cameras flashed.
Chamas then gave another gift box to Sarker with the same contents.
Chamas, Bernier, Sarker and Brossard all posed with the gift box.
There were more photos.
Chamas brought along another gift. He donated $5,000 in cash to the Papineau riding association that night, according to Juanita Cree who delivered the envelope.
Cree was working for Chamas at the time as his aide and sat beside him throughout the event.
Sarker confirmed his riding association received the cash, but said it was handled by David Bernstein, a well-connected Conservative fundraiser who ran for the Tories in the late 1970s and in 1980, and Sarker’s official agent at the time..
Sarker said the remaining $4,000 was registered under the names of four different people. He said the riding association’s financial agent at the time would have all the details, but the number he provided for this individual was disconnected.
“(The) financial agent is responsible for disbursement of cash,” said Sarker. “We already issued the official receipt, we have to give a refund (to Chamas), and four receipts of $1000 was issued and one copy was sent to (Elections Canada). It was done properly.”
When pressed if he remembered whether Cree gave $5,000 in cash in another interview, Sarker again confirmed it.
“The money was given from David, and we gave to the association financial agent,” said Sarker, before refusing to answer any more questions.
It is against Elections Canada rules to receive cash donations over $20 and to register donations under people’s names who don’t directly donate the money.
According to Elections Canada data, one donation was registered to the Conservative riding association on Jan. 15, 2008, and it was for $500.
Five donations, however, were registered for Jan. 14 and each was for $775.24. One of the donors was Bernstein and the other was Sarker.
The electoral association received another donation on Aug. 28 for $1,000. For 2008, excluding election donations, the association recorded a total of $6,515 for the year, including $1,138 in donations under $200.
According to Elections Canada data, Brossard-La Prairie Conservative riding association received 8 donations that were registered on Jan. 17 ranging from $415 to $500.
The fundraising dinner, however, has already been the subject of scandal.
While Bernier was engulfed in controversy over documents left behind at the home of his then-girlfriend Julie Couillard who had previous links to the Hells Angels, La Presse reported on May 10 that the RCMP spoke to Bernier about Chamas.
The police reportedly saw a photograph showing Bernier shaking hands with Chamas, who, by the time the story hit, had been charged with nine weapons offences in connection to the Project Cancun raid of his house.
At the time, a spokesman for Bernier told reporters that the minister met Chamas only once while posing for the photo.
Sarker said he couldn’t remember who invited Chamas or what the businessman said.
Bernier actually spoke to Chamas during a VIP meet-and-greet, according to photos.
Chamas, however, wasn’t the only security concern stemming from the evening.
There were a “lotta shady characters there that night (sic),” wrote Bernier’s senior aide Ross O’Connor to David Bernstein, a Conservative fundraiser and Sarker’s bagman for the event.
“RCMP called and said many people attending fundraiser were on serious watch lists (sic),” said the May 6, 2008 email.
Bernstein wrote back in apparent surprise.
“Are you telling me that the fundraiser for Sarker had shady characters? I am wondering who can that be. I was with Jerome Choquette (former minister of Justice of Quebec) and there were two candidates involved. I am working for Mustaque Sarker!”
O’Connor wrote back saying the RCMP showed Bernier’s office a “detailed list of crooks there that night, including some organizers. I was then told that anyone there that night might be radioactive.”
Bernstein responded asking if he should “hire an attorney,” claimed he’s never been involved in “anything illegal or immoral,” that he needed his “name clear” and wondered whether “I should contact Stockwell Day, who was public safety minister at the time.”
O’Connor replied that Bernstein had nothing to fear.
“I think you’re cool. No need for lawyer (sic),” wrote O’Connor.
A spokesman for Bernier, who is now secretary of state for small business, told APTN National News in a recent email that the former foreign affairs minister never saw the list and knew nothing about it.