Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Court gives 'break' to former Tory MP

Cocaine, drunk-driving charges withdrawn

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ORANGEVILLE, Ont. -- A former Conservative MP once known for his tough stance on drugs received a "break" when cocaine possession and drunk-driving charges were withdrawn in a plea bargain, an Ontario judge said Tuesday.

The deal, in which Rahim Jaffer pleaded guilty to the lesser offence of careless driving, sparked an angry exchange in the House of Commons after the opposition Liberals accused the government of hypocrisy.

In convicting Jaffer and fining him $500, the Ontario court judge said he would not interfere with the joint submission by Crown and defence.

"I'm sure you can recognize a break when you see one," Justice Doug Maund told Jaffer.

Prosecutor Marie Balogh told the court there was no reasonable prospect of conviction on the more serious charges, saying there would be "significant legal issues" with proceeding on those.

"The matter was carefully reviewed," Balogh told Maund. She would not comment afterwards.

Jaffer, 38, later told reporters he was relieved the case was over.

"I know that I should have been more careful," he said. "Once again I apologize for that, and I take full responsibility for my careless driving."

Jaffer, who is married to junior federal cabinet minister Helena Guergis, was arrested last Sept. 10 after police stopped him for driving at 90 kilometres an hour in a 50 km/h zone in Palgrave, Ont., north of Toronto.

Court heard that Jaffer told police he had two beers before heading home to Angus, Ont., from Toronto. He failed a breath test and was arrested.

In the Commons, Winnipeg Liberal MP Anita Neville called on the Conservative government to condemn the plea arrangement, saying Jaffer had got off with a "slap on the wrist."

"The Conservatives are conspicuously silent only when the law's being flouted by one of their own," Neville said. "Does this government really believe that the punishment fits the crime?"

"This is about as low as you can go," retorted Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

Craig Jones, head of the John Howard society, a prisoner advocacy group, suggested the sentence was appropriate.

Society would gain little by making an example of him, Jones said.

"The guy's been publicly humiliated... If this is a first offence, it's a very costly first offence for a guy who aspires to be in public service."

As an MP, Jaffer was well known for his tough stance on drug abuse and dealing. He was the face of several Conservative public-service announcements on radio that called for a sentencing crackdown on drug dealers.

University of Alberta law professor Steven Penney said that two things could've occurred to prompt the Crown to drop the criminal charges and allow Jaffer to plead a lesser provincial offence.

He said Jaffer's rights could've been violated if police had wrongfully stopped him, asked him to take a breathalyzer, detained him or denied his right to counsel, thus making the evidence obtained not admissible in court.

Or, said Penney, the Crown may have decided that the evidence was not strong enough to proceed to trial. "We may never know what the reasons are," he said from Edmonton.

Jaffer was first elected as an Edmonton-area Conservative MP in 1997 -- becoming Canada's first Muslim MP -- but lost his riding in 2008.

Guergis, who represents Simcoe-Grey for the Conservatives, has faced problems of her own recently after a meltdown at Charlottetown airport for which she apologized.

-- The Canadian Press, with files from Canwest

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2010 A11

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