John Gomery, judge who led inquiry exposing federal sponsorship scandal, dead at 88

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MONTREAL — John Gomery, the judge who led a public inquiry that helped sink a federal government, has died at age 88.

His daughter confirmed his death to The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

"He was a giant, an extraordinary man and a superb father, and my heart and whole body aches now that he’s gone," Liz Gomery wrote on Twitter Tuesday night.

Gomery was a Quebec Superior Court justice when he was named to head an inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal in 2004. The sponsorship program was created to raise the profile of the federal government in Quebec after the near loss of the 1995 referendum on the province's independence.

But the program became a vehicle for Quebec advertising companies to receive funds for little or no work, and some of that money was kicked back to Liberal party operatives in the province. The revelations of kickbacks and illegal fundraising ultimately helped lead to the defeat of the once-dominant Liberals.

During the hearings, Gomery created lasting images with his testy exchanges with prominent witnesses such as former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

''It was an amazing spectacle," Gomery told The Canadian Press during an interview in 2007. "It was a drama with surprise discoveries almost every day, with eminently competent lawyers. It was an ideal situation for the person running the show.''

While many Canadians appreciated Gomery's fire and candour, a Federal Court judge in 2008 threw out a key conclusion from the report, which found that Chrétien bore some responsibility for the scandal. Gomery never said Chrétien and his former chief of staff knew about the wrongdoing, but he said they should have put safeguards in place to prevent it.

In his ruling, Justice Max Teitelbaum criticized comments Gomery made to the media that left the perception he was biased against Chrétien.

Famously during the inquiry, Gomery described golf balls embossed with the prime minister's signature as "small-town cheap" — a comment that infuriated Chrétien.

In 2005, The Canadian Press named Gomery Newsmaker of the Year.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante paid tribute to Gomery on Wednesday, noting his impact on federal and municipal politics. Gomery briefly emerged from retirement in 2009 to oversee the fundraising campaign for the political party she now leads.

"Mr. Gomery made history by chairing the commission on the sponsorship scandal," Plante wrote on Twitter. "He also put in place the funding rules that (Projet Montréal) uses today."

Gomery studied law at McGill University and worked in private practice in Montreal before being made a judge in 1982. Early in his career, he became known for expertise in family and commercial law.

As a judge, he made decisions on workers rights and led a team of judges that reformed family law, which he later described as one of his proudest accomplishments.

He retired to his farm southwest of Montreal in 2007, but he remained active in public life. Gomery told The Canadian Press at the time he hoped to be remembered for some of his accomplishments beyond the inquiry, which he described as "the cherry on top of the cake" of his 50-year career in the courtroom.

''It was a test for me, frankly. But I haven't regretted it," he said of the inquiry.

"And if the people remember me for that, that's fine. It's sort of inevitable. I can't expect people in Calgary, Alberta to know me for any other reason than that. But I would hope that some people in my home province or Montreal would remember me for other things.''

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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