Under a barrage of opposition accusations that he's running a corrupt government, Quebec Premier Jean Charest is fighting back, announcing a public inquiry into the selection of judges after explosive allegations that he was involved with influence peddling in judicial appointments.
Former justice minister Marc Bellemare said this week that he witnessed the transfer of cash donations made to circumvent election finance laws and was pressed by influential party fundraisers to appoint specific Liberal supporters to the bench.
Mr. Charest rejected the allegations yesterday, calling them totally false and insisting that the public inquiry into judicial appointments will show that his government was never involved in wrongdoing.
"The appointment of the commissioner will be someone very credible," Mr. Charest told The Globe and Mail yesterday, saying that all the details regarding the inquiry will be released Wednesday.
Mr. Charest seemed to indicate that the commissioner will be able to set his own agenda and determine what witnesses to call. Mr. Charest said that if summoned, he will testify.
The Premier refused to give details on the extent of the inquiry's mandate. However, it will be restricted to examining judicial appointments and not meet opposition demands to include allegations of illegal party financing involving major Liberal donors tied to the construction industry.
The Parti Québécois asked that former Quebec Superior court judge John Gomery, who headed the inquiry into the sponsorship scandal in Ottawa, and Auditor-General Renaud Lachance be named to define the mandate of a much wider public inquiry that looks into allegations that link the awarding of government contracts and appointments to Liberal party financing.
"Mr. Charest is in a conflict of interest … he doesn't have the credibility to appoint a public inquiry," PQ Leader Pauline Marois said.
The Liberals scoffed at the suggestion, saying Mr. Gomery is not a credible figure to investigate alleged government wrongdoings.
"The federal court of appeal blamed him after he [Mr. Gomery]said he had the best seat in the show during the Gomery commission. The government does not want to put on a show," said Government House Leader Jacques Dupuis.
Radio-Canada reported yesterday that an anonymous construction entrepreneur said he also saw cash transfers and was aware of attempts to influence the nomination of judges.
Mr. Bellemare told a number of Quebec media that the inquiry announced by Mr. Charest was too restrictive and would not address the alleged influence peddling.
Mr. Charest's lawyer, André Ryan, issued a formal notice to Mr. Bellemare yesterday demanding that he withdraw his "false, malicious and defamatory remarks" by 4 p.m. Wednesday or face a lawsuit.
Mr. Bellemare said he stands by his allegations.
Mr. Charest said that after 25 years in politics, he is prepared to fight, and is not ready to step down as Premier.
"In politics, we become the target of those who want to attack us. I accept it but I can't say that I like it, but that's the way it is," he said at a news conference.
During his one-year tenure as justice minister starting in April, 2003, Mr. Bellemare appointed a total of eight judges. According to the official gazette, the nominations include two interim municipal judges, two promotions involving the chief justice and the associate chief justice of the Quebec Court as well as four nominations to the Quebec Court.
Party financing documents also show that five of the nominations included judges that had contributed money to the Quebec Liberal party.