You could be forgiven for thinking that the almost-nightly riots that have gripped Montreal in the wake of the three-month-old student strike are keeping Jean Charest awake at night. But those rampages are actually helping the Quebec Premier’s dismal poll numbers.
No, the person who is probably giving Mr. Charest cold sweats is Madam Justice France Charbonneau, who is presiding over an inquiry into allegations of corruption involving public contracts. The Charbonneau commission was launched with little fanfare this week because of the all-encompassing effects of the student crisis. While its launch barely registered in the Quebec media, the commission is no doubt on the Premier’s mind as he juggles with upcoming election scenarios.
As it should be. The Charbonneau commission will look closely at shady deals that have been the focus of investigative journalism for the past four years. It could lead to new and damaging revelations about the political class in general and Mr. Charest’s Liberals specifically. One does not need to be a political genius to suspect that the Premier, if he chooses to seek a fourth mandate, will call Quebeckers to the polls before the commission starts digging really deep, some time this fall.
What we already know is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck raise in horror. Whether at the municipal or provincial levels, the stories almost always have a similar through-line, which could be summed up, in Watergate-speak, as “follow the money.”
The same characters always appear: Someone wants a public contract. It could be to build an overpass, a bridge or a road, or even permits for subsidized daycare units – it doesn’t matter. That person then chooses to give money to a municipal or provincial party, or shower gifts or advantages upon a politician or a highly placed public servant.
Miraculously, after said donations or gifts – or both – something happens: The afore-
mentioned someone’s firm gets the contract it was seeking.
In all fairness, most of the stories I’m referring to involved cities. Montreal has been a repeat offender. For instance, last week, police arrested Frank Zampino, the former right-hand man of Mayor Gérald Tremblay. Mr. Zampino is among a handful of individuals – Mr. Tremblay’s party bagman, his former chief of staff and a rich real-estate promoter – arrested by the Escouade Marteau, or Hammer Squad, a police anti-corruption unit.
But sometimes municipal scandals metastasize into the provincial body politic. Take the case of Boisbriand: In what seemed like a strictly bush-league follow-the-money scandal, the construction of a water-treatment plant in this little commuter town north of Montreal bloomed into a troubling affair involving a former Charest cabinet minister, Nathalie Normandeau.
We already knew that the Marteau investigators had arrested the former Boisbriand mayor, a vice-president of the engineering giant Roche Ltd. and a construction contractor, in connection with a kickback scheme involving this water plant. But what Radio-Canada revealed last April exploded into the Liberals’ backyard: The plant got a $11-million 2006 grant from the Municipal Affairs Ministry, then led by Ms. Normandeau.
Provincial bureaucrats had denied the grant for 10 years, arguing that Boisbriand did not meet the criteria. Ms. Normandeau used her discretionary powers as a minister to allow it. Not long before, Roche had done some heavy fundraising benefiting the Liberals. And who, after that, got the contract for designing the plant? You guessed it: Roche.
Ms. Normandeau denies any wrongdoing and any link between the money Roche gave her party – a couple of hundred grand – and her decision to green-light the grant.
But wait, there’s more. The contractor who ultimately built the plant also contributed big money – $77,000 – to a Liberal Party fundraiser spearheaded by Ms. Normandeau. Lino Zambito also decided to offer a token of his appreciation in the form of 11 box tickets to a Celine Dion concert. The minister accepted.
To Radio-Canada, she offered this shockingly disingenuous explanation: “It is not my habit to go in these boxes. This was the exception. But come on, it was Celine Dion.”
I could have told you about another Charest minister – the son of a Liberal bagman – who was making personal use of the corporate credit card of a Liberal donator who also happened to benefit from public contracts. He’s awaiting trial for fraud.
Or about the way another of Mr. Charest’s ministers found herself, all unwittingly, sitting with a high-ranking Mafia boss at a fundraiser.
These are the kinds of stories that might be told in the coming months in front of Judge Charbonneau. When it comes to determining the Premier’s political fortune, the troublemakers ruling Montreal’s streets are no match.
Patrick Lagacé is a columnist with Montreal's La Presse.