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Wolson plays starring role at Oliphant inquiry

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I confess.

After being laid out hot and cold by the flu, I spent most of the week watching a kind of reality soap opera I took to calling The Boys on The Television Screen.

It's more commonly known as the Oliphant inquiry and, at the risk of sounding indelicate, the "show" did nothing to help my queasy stomach.

I mean, with Brain Mulroney being the star witness.

But the real stars on this at-times riveting drama -- to me at least and I dare say much of Manitoba's proud legal community -- are a couple of guys from Winnipeg: inquiry commissioner Jeffrey Oliphant and his chosen lead counsel Richard Wolson.

Hence The Boys on The Television Screen.

For the record, Oliphant was called to the bench in Brandon from Dauphin where he was in private practice for years. He later moved to Winnipeg.

However, Wolson has always lived here -- a fact he proudly slipped in this week while he adeptly slipped scissors through the story of the former prime minister who, after leaving office, was slipped three legal-sized envelopes stuffed with at least $225,000 by Karlheinz Schreiber, the German-Canadian lobbyist who is wanted overseas for bribery and corruption charges.

You can see how slippery this soap can get.

The prospect of having someone who knows how to cross-examine a witness has been eagerly anticipated -- at least it has been by me -- since Mulroney and Schreiber appeared before the amateurs who questioned them during a Commons ethics committee session a while back.

When it was Mulroney's turn to face a pro at the Oliphant inquiry, Wolson began by needlessly -- or perhaps deferentially -- reminding a man who is a lawyer himself that he, Richard Wolson, was just doing his job.

After all, Mulroney had sat on a commission himself, where he had a "bulldog" for a lead counsel, as Wolson put it. Not that Wolson was a bulldog, he advised Mulroney.

Perhaps not, but he quickly began to act like some kind of a dog with a bone. Thursday, after Day 1 of Wolson chewing on Mulroney, the Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford -- a crusty court-room chronicler of hundreds of cross-examinations -- was moved to make her own confession.

"I have never seen such a one as Brian Mulroney (Thursday), being questioned by Richard Wolson, a lawyer from Winnipeg whose pauses alone are terrifying."

That might be lathering it on a tad thick, even for hyperbole, but I've seen Wolson at work over the years -- always in a defence-lawyer mode -- and you definitely don't want to be in the witness box when he pauses, takes off his glasses and gives you that poker-face stare with those hot-poker eyes.

Usually, it's when he's defending someone, which -- if I may -- often means trying to mask the truth rather than uncovering it, which is his job at the inquiry.

Wolson was defence counsel for Derek Harvey-Zenk, the former Winnipeg police officer involved in the off-duty motor-vehicle death of Crystal Taman. In that role, Wolson wound up ensnared in a controversial joint plea bargain with Crown-appointed counsel Marty Minuk. That led to Harvey-Zenk receiving a conditional discharge and Wolson taking the witness box at the public inquiry that followed that notorious case.

But, his most accomplished work may have been defending Brian Jack all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and finally winning the former Blue Bomber's freedom. Jack had been twice convicted of manslaughter following the 1988 disappearance of his wife, Christine.

You shouldn't be surprised to learn then that Richard Wolson, along with Hymie Weinstein, are considered the top two criminal defence lawyers in the city, at least by the Winnipeg Police Association -- which should tell you everything you need to know but their hourly rates.

Yet, they weren't great students going into law, something Weinstein doesn't mind talking about -- but Wolson would rather not.

Weinstein calls himself a longtime friend of Wolson's -- they even ended up with golden retrievers from the same litter -- and Weinstein went to law school with Oliphant. He recalls a six-week trial he did in front of Oliphant, where Weinstein came away marvelling at his former classmate's abilities.

"The man takes better notes than a court reporter. He has a great recall. He's one of the best I've seen."

The greatest testimony to Oliphant's talents is that he's popular with both Crown and defence attorneys, which speaks to his always respectful bench-side manner, his ability to listen carefully and his fairness.

All of which, if you'll pardon the expression, have been in evidence at the inquiry.

As for Wolson: "Richard is well-prepared," Weinstein says.

"He knows where he's going. And he does an excellent job of cross-examination."

So Brian Mulroney -- and the rest of Canada -- are learning.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2009 B1

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