Former Quebec justice minister Marc Bellemare withstood a tough cross-examination at the Bastarache commission on Monday, holding firm to his previous testimony that Premier Jean Charest approved influence-peddling in the nomination of judges in the province.
Mr. Bellemare testified last week that in August of 2003, when he was justice minister, influential party fundraiser Franco Fava and current junior transport minister Norm McMillan were pressuring him to appoint Marc Bisson as a Quebec Court judge.
Mr. Bellemare testified that Mr. Fava and Mr. McMillan told him that Mr. Bisson was a loyal Liberal supporter and should get the job. They also told him that Marc's father, Guy Bisson, was linked to the sponsorship scandal in Ottawa and was mentioned in federal Auditor-General Sheila Fraser's report.
But that report wasn't released until February, 2004, and inquiry lawyer Giuseppe Battista noted on Monday that Mr. Bellemare could not have known the previous August what was in it.
Mr. Bellemare acknowledged his mistake, but explained that Mr. Fava and Mr. McMillan were probably aware that Guy Bisson was under investigation by the Auditor-General for his role in the sponsorship program prior to writing her report.
"It's not exceptional in politics to warn us about an individual even if no report has been completed," Mr. Bellemare told the commission.
Guy Bisson was a senior Quebec Liberal Party fundraiser in the Gatineau region. Mr. Bellemare insisted that he was pressured by Mr. Fava to name Mr. Bisson's son to the bench and that during a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Charest on Sept. 2, 2003, the Premier approved Mr. Fava's initiative.
Government lawyer Suzanne Côté confronted Mr. Bellemare on the Bisson nomination as well as other parts of his testimony. She attempted to show that Mr. Bisson's name was added to the list in November, 2003, only after other candidates were eliminated from the process because they failed to pass security clearance.
If Mr. Bellemare was ordered by Mr. Charest, whom he qualified as "the god" or the "pope" of government, why didn't he act immediately, Ms Côté asked. Why were other candidates being considered?
Mr. Bellemare suggested that regardless of the process in place, the decision to appoint Mr. Bisson was made by Mr. Charest and nothing would change it.
Ms. Côté also suggested that Mr. Bellemare maintained close ties with Mr. Fava after quitting politics in 2004 and even invited him to help finance Mr. Bellemare's municipal election campaign when he ran for mayor of Quebec City in 2005.
"That's false," Mr. Bellemare said bluntly.
The government lawyer also attacked Mr. Bellemare for a decision by his deputy minister to reassign senior civil servant Pierre Legendre, who had been responsible for years for the nomination process of judges in the Ministry of Justice. Mr. Legendre was ousted from his job after Mr. Bellemare learned that he was the brother of former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Richard Legendre.
The former PQ minister had called Mr. Bellemare's office to tell them: "Be careful with my brother," in a bid to protect his brother's job, Mr. Bellmare said. It was the first time, Mr. Bellemare said, that he had learned that a close collaborator in his office had family ties with the opposing PQ Party.
"I was uncomfortable with the situation," he explained adding that he never intervened to have Mr. Legendre removed but that it was a decision taken by his deputy minister.
Mr. Bellemare's lawyer, Rénald Beaudry, objected on a number of occasions to Ms. Côté's line of questioning, saying it was outside the purview of the commission's mandate. But former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache, who heads the commission, rejected most of Mr. Beaudry's objections.
Mr. Bellemare waited until the end of the day to launch another subtle attack against his former government. He implicated another Charest minister in an alleged attempt at influencing the nomination of a judge.
Mr. Bellemare said that in 2003, then-municipal-affairs-minister Jean-Marc Fournier approached him to have a lawyer and Liberal Party supporter in his riding named to the bench. Mr. Fournier joins a list that includes Mr. McMillan and former labour minister Michel Després, who, according to Mr. Bellemare, approached him to influence the nomination of a judge.
Cross-examination resumes on Tuesday.