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Phillipe Couillard announces his candidacy for the leadership of the Quebec Liberals on Wednesday Oct. 3, 2012 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Phillipe Couillard announces his candidacy for the leadership of the Quebec Liberals on Wednesday Oct. 3, 2012 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Former health minister Philippe Couillard seeks Quebec Liberal leadership Add to ...

The frontrunner in the race to succeed Jean Charest is officially off and running.

Philippe Couillard, the neurosurgeon and former health minister who left government in 2008, was surrounded by high-profile former cabinet ministers as he launched his campaign to lead the Quebec Liberal Party on Wednesday.

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Mr. Couillard, 55, has spent the past five years in the private sector, and his candidacy was not even confirmed when questions were renewed about his departure.

Mr. Couillard was in negotiations for two months with his eventual employer, Persistance Capital Partners (PCP), a shareholder in the private health firm Medisys, before he announced his resignation in August 2008. While the ethics commissioner cleared him of any ethical breach and the government executive committee had given him the go-ahead to launch negotiations, the departure has been a cloud over his head ever since.

Mr. Couillard said he regrets not explaining his departure more clearly at the time.

"I would never run if I didn't think my integrity was perfectly intact," Mr. Couillard said. "That investment company has never had any business dealings with the government of Quebec."

Mr. Couillard has also long been associated with Arthur Porter, the architect of a deal with SNC-Lavalin to build the McGill University Hospital Centre, a project now under investigation amid allegations that the company made illegal payments to secure the project. No charges have been laid and Dr. Porter, who resigned last year and took a new job in the Caribbean, has not been accused of wrongdoing in the project.

Mr. Couillard said he hasn't seen Dr. Porter since his farewell last year, which was attended by many of Montreal's most prominent citizens.

"I'm just extremely surprised by what we're hearing about the MUHC," he said. "Surprised, but also disappointed."

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