Premier Jean Charest has completed his testimony before the Bastarache commission, unshaken by charges that his government breached the rules of confidentiality that protect the nomination of judges from political interference.
During his second day testifying before the public inquiry examining allegations of influence peddling in the nomination of judges, Mr. Charest said Friday there was nothing wrong with him or a senior staff member recommending who should be nominated as judge to the Quebec Court.
Jean-François Bertrand, the lawyer for former justice minister Marc Bellemare, whose allegations prompted the creation of the commission, argued that the Premier's involvement constituted a break in the confidential process leading up to a judge's nomination.
"The rules clearly say that the names of the candidates, their résumés and personal information must remain confidential. The information is kept by the co-ordinator of the selection committee," Mr. Bertrand said while cross-examining the Premier. "Am I right to say you changed the rules ... that this was not done under other governments?"
Mr. Bertrand argued that under the rules, once the selection committee decides on a shortlist of candidates, the Minister of Justice alone recommends to cabinet who should be nominated as judge.
Mr. Charest disagreed, saying that he didn't know how the process worked before he came to power but that he has always had access to the short list and made recommendations to the Minister of Justice.
"The minister makes one or two preferences known. I give him my advice and then he makes his recommendation to cabinet," Mr. Charest said. "The justice minister consults the premier and that's how the choice is made. It's not written in the rules, but it doesn't have to be."
Mr. Charest also revealed that the senior staff member in his office responsible for government appointments, Chantal Landry, was also given access to the short list.
Quebec law requires a different process for the nomination of judges than for other appointments. A selection committee made up of a judge, a lawyer and a representative of the public examines the candidates and decides on a short list. The process requires tight security and the protection of the identity of the candidates.
Mr. Bertrand said giving Ms. Landry access to the short list also constituted a breach of confidentiality. He noted that Ms. Landry met party fundraiser Charles Rondeau almost on a weekly basis for six months shortly after the Liberals came to power in 2003 in order to help fill various government nominations.
"Are you comfortable with the fact that a fundraiser had such easy and frequent access [to Chantal Landry]" Mr. Bertrand asked.
Mr. Charest's answer was as unequivocal as the rest of his testimony. "I am at ease with the work Ms. Landry does and the way she does it," Mr. Charest said.
He refused to acknowledge that Ms. Landry acted inappropriately when seeking the advice of a senior fundraiser in making certain government appointments. And Mr. Charest saw nothing irregular in appointing Gérard Bibeau, a close friend of senior fundraiser Franco Fava, as secretary-general of the executive branch, the highest position in the civil service.
The inquiry headed by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache will resume hearings next week when past and present senior staff members in the Premier's office, including Ms. Landry, will testify. Current and former cabinet ministers have also been assigned to appear before the commission next week.
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