It was an extraordinary moment in Quebec politics as Jean Charest took the witness stand as the first Premier of his province to testify before a public inquiry in a bid to demolish serious allegations against him.
Mr. Charest's personal integrity was at stake, and he categorically denied that former justice minister Marc Bellemare ever told him that Liberal fundraisers put pressure on him to nominate faithful party supporters to the Quebec Court.
Mr. Bellemare testified before the commission of inquiry into the nomination process of judges that he first warned Mr. Charest of the influence peddling by party fundraiser Franco Fava, a construction entrepreneur, during a one-on-one meeting on Sept. 2, 2003. Mr. Bellemare said he complained about efforts made to get Marc Bisson appointed to the Quebec Court and judge Michel Simard promoted to associate chief justice.
According to Mr. Bellemare, Mr. Charest told him: "Franco is a personal friend, a fund collector who is influential in the party. We need people like him. … If he says nominate Simard and Bisson, then do it."
"That conversation never happened," Mr. Charest told the public inquiry on Thursday. "The meeting never happened."
The Premier produced his official agenda to show that the meeting was never logged into the book and therefore never took place.
"I deny categorically saying the words he puts in my mouth," Mr. Charest noted during his sworn testimony. "To discuss the actions of fundraisers and say that he [Mr. Bellemare]was under pressure, well, had he told me about it, I would have certainly taken the necessary measures to protect him."
Mr. Charest firmly denied each allegation made against him by Mr. Bellemare. Mr. Charest said there was never any discussion about the appointment of Judge Simard, Judge Bisson and Line Gosselin-Desprès, the three nominations being scrutinized by the inquiry. He said there was never any mention of potential influential peddling or exchange of cash between a Liberal fundraiser and party organizer, as claimed by the former minister. All of it is "completely false," Mr. Charest said.
"He was the minister of justice and if people were pressuring him, that would be unacceptable, we would not tolerate that," Mr. Charest said.
Relaxed, composed and like the seasoned politician he is, Mr. Charest took aim at Mr. Bellemare's credibility as well as his character. The Premier calmly described how the former minister had trouble managing his staff and refused to compromise on reforms he put forward. He said Mr. Bellemare saw conspiracies against him everywhere.
"During a meeting [to discuss one of his reforms,]Mr. Bellemare sulked," Mr. Charest said. "It was embarrassing."
He described Mr. Bellemare as difficult to work with.
"His office was in a terrible state," Mr. Charest noted. "He wasn't able to work with his colleagues, nothing worked … he quarrelled publicly with his colleagues. It never stopped. It showed that politics isn't for everyone."
Mr. Charest said he can't understand why Mr. Bellemare would make his allegations seven years after quitting politics.
The head of the commission, Michel Bastarache, asked Mr. Charest to explain the context that prompted Mr. Bellemare to make his allegations so long after leaving government.
Mr. Charest said that after Mr. Bellemare went public last spring with allegations of irregular party fundraising activities, he had told him he should instead have gone to the Chief Electoral Officer.
Mr. Bellemare made his allegations amid an uproar over possible corruption in the construction industry. Mr. Bellemare has said that as minister he swore not to divulge confidential government information and that this prevents him from giving details that would prove his claims.
Yet Mr. Charest said in the National Assembly last March that if Mr. Bellemare "has proof, dates, locations, what is so compromising in making them public? What's stopping him?"
Mr. Bellemare's lawyer is expected to take aim at Mr. Charest's credibility during cross-examination of the Premier on Friday.