Former Quebec justice minister Marc Bellemare has testified under oath that Premier Jean Charest gave his blessing to the role Quebec Liberal Party fundraisers played in the appointment of judges in the province.
Mr. Bellemare's testimony on Tuesday before a commission of inquiry into the nomination of judges was so politically damaging that Mr. Charest rushed to deny the charges.
Mr. Bellemare told the commission headed by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache on Tuesday that, on several occasions, two senior Liberal fundraisers and party organizers, Franco Fava, a construction entrepreneur, and Charles Rondeau, an accountant, intervened to have three Liberals appointed to the bench. Mr. Bellemare testified that throughout July and August of 2003, the pressure increased gradually to the point where Mr. Fava's "colossal" influence became overbearing.
On Sept. 2, 2003, almost four months after the Liberals took office, Mr. Bellemare said, he had his first one-on-one meeting with Mr. Charest, in which he exposed the "delicate" situation to the Premier.
"Who appoints the judges in Quebec? Is it Franco Fava or me?" Mr. Bellemare said he asked Mr. Charest during the meeting. "I found that this [the handling of judges' nominations]was unacceptable. I didn't like it at all."
He said he complained to Mr. Charest that Mr. Fava was especially insistent on getting Gatineau lawyer Marc Bisson appointed to the Quebec Court and lawyer Michel Simard appointed assistant chief justice to the Quebec Court.
He added that similar pressure was exerted for Line Gosselin-Després to be appointed as a Juvenile Court judge. Ms. Gosselin-Després is the cousin of former Labour minister Michel Després, who also intervened on her behalf, Mr. Bellemare said.
Mr. Fava was "unequivocal with a certain arrogance" in insisting that after nine years in opposition, loyal Liberal supporters should receive appointments, Mr. Bellemare told the commission.
"Mr. Charest told me: 'Franco is a personal friend, a fund collector who is influential in the party. We need people like him ... If Franco says to appoint Simard and Bisson, then do it,'" Mr. Bellemare testified.
Mr. Bellemare also said that donors were giving cash to fundraisers in meetings. He said he warned Mr. Charest during a brief encounter at a cabinet meeting that this was "dangerous and imprudent." Mr. Charest's response, according to Mr. Bellemare, was limited to saying that 'this is not the place to discuss it.'
Mr. Bellemare also said there was a close relationship between Mr. Charest and Mr. Fava, who often bragged about his influence within the party.
For instance, shortly after the election in April of 2003, he said, Mr. Fava told him at a victory celebration party that he would be quite "happy with what was about to happen."
"Fava knew I was going to be named to cabinet before I did," Mr. Bellemare said.
He then said Mr. Fava exercised undue influence on Mr. Charest. "This guy brings in $1-million a year," Mr. Bellemare said he was told by the Premier.
The testimony was a direct attack on Mr. Charest's personal integrity and a potentially crippling blow to his political credibility. A poll published this week indicates that the majority of Quebeckers believe Mr. Bellemare's version of the events.
In a late afternoon news conference, Mr. Charest struck back rather than wait his turn to testify before the commission to refute Mr. Bellemare's damaging remarks.
"Mr. Bellemare never raised the issue of undue influence in the nomination of judges. Even less so did I tell Mr. Bellemare to appoint someone because he was being pressured by anyone," Mr. Charest said during Tuesday's news conference.
The Premier denied he was a personal friend of Mr. Fava and that Mr. Fava ever exercised "undue influence" on him. "This is false," Mr. Charest said. "I know Mr. Fava. I never met him in my office. And he has no privileged access."
Mr. Charest didn't deny that he met Mr. Bellemare on Sept. 2, 2003, but was unable to account for what was said.
Mr. Bellemare told the commission that nothing about the judicial nominations was illegal, but "I didn't find that this was right."
The former minister, who held the justice portfolio for a year before leaving politics, said he joined the Liberal Party because he wanted to change the province's no-fault car insurance program as well as reform the administration of the province's justice system. When the Liberal government failed to adopt the reforms, Mr. Bellemare quit politics in April, 2004.
"If on Sept. 2, [2003,]I had known that the reforms wouldn't go through, I would have quit on Sept. 2 ... There were ethical problems linked to these [judicial]nominations ... but I remained loyal to my Premier," Mr. Bellemare said.
Mr. Bellemare will resume his testimony before the commission on Wednesday.