The Bastarache inquiry into alleged political interference in the nomination of judges hasn't even started holding public hearings yet, but on Tuesday it was hit by a major setback when its chief prosecutor, Pierre Cimon, resigned.
Appointed just last week by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache, Mr. Cimon quickly became the target of opposition charges that he would be partial because he had regularly contributed to the Quebec Liberal Party over the past 25 years.
In a statement, Mr. Cimon said he had no ties with any political parties but to ensure the appearance of the commission's impartiality, it was better for him to resign.
"It was in order to avoid calling into question the Commission's impartiality and to assure the serenity of the procedures that I took this decision," Mr. Cimon said in the statement. "I never took part in any political meeting and I never solicited a mandate nor did I receive any advantages on the part of the government."
The man at the centre of the controversy that forced Premier Jean Charest to set up the inquiry last month - former justice minister Marc Bellemare - has accused the Bastarache commission of being nothing more than a "circus" created to cover up the Liberals' wrongdoing.
In April, Mr. Bellemare made serious accusations against Mr. Charest and his party, saying that when Mr. Bellemare was justice minister, he knew of kickbacks and influence peddling in judicial appointments. Mr. Bellemare also alleged the party was involved in illegal-financing activities after witnessing the exchange of huge amounts of cash between construction entrepreneurs and Liberal Party officials. He also said he informed Mr. Charest about this on five occasions but nothing was done.
Mr. Bellemare said last week that the Bastarache commission has been partial from the moment it was created. Mr. Bastarache, he said, worked for the Montreal law firm Heenan Blaikie, which was "very close" to the Liberals, having received numerous government contracts.
The Québec Solidaire party revealed that from 2003 to 2008, members of Heenan Blaikie had contributed more than $300,000 to the Quebec Liberal party. During that same period, the firm received more than $2-million in government contracts, documents obtained by the party show.
"[Mr. Cimon's resignation]was the thing to do given his very close ties with the Liberal Party," Quebec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir said on Tuesday. "I hope Mr. Bastarache will take more precautions."
During Question Period, the Parti Québécois blasted the government for failing to intervene to ensure that the commission remained impartial.
Mr. Charest later told reporters that once the commission was set up, it was completely independent to manage its affairs and appoint personnel.
The Bastarache commission refused to address Mr. Cimon's resignation, and questions are emerging as to whether it will be able to begin hearings next month as planned.
The commission will decide in mid-June who will be allowed to appear and witnesses are expected to testify in August after the summer break. The commission has been asked to table its report by Oct. 15.Report Typo/Error
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