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Ex-Quebec deputy premier blames corrupt engineering firms

Former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Nathalie Normandeau is pictured off a television monitor at the Charbonneau inquiry looking into corruption in the Quebec construction industry Wednesday, June 18, 2014 in Montreal.


Former Quebec deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau told the provincial corruption inquiry on Wednesday that if questionable activities were going on in her office, it was happening without her knowledge.

Ms. Normandeau put the blame on corrupt engineering firms.

The ex-provincial politician used her one-day appearance at the Charbonneau commission to defend the decisions she made while serving as a cabinet minister and indicated that she was seeking to set the record straight about allegations of influence peddling.

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She told the inquiry she exercised her discretionary powers as a cabinet minister with care and did not put undue pressure on civil servants.

Ms. Normandeau's name has been mentioned frequently at the inquiry, and she has been accused of benefiting from illegal financing practices, accepting gifts from entrepreneurs and favouring for projects involving firms that donated heavily to the Quebec Liberals.

She has denied any wrongdoing and repeated that on Wednesday. She defended intervening in certain files, saying discretionary powers are an important tool for a cabinet minister to counterbalance the power of civil servants.

As municipal affairs minister, she oversaw which municipalities got subsidies for projects. The towns awarded the contracts.

She estimated she increased the subsidies on 32 of 708 files that crossed her desk because she did not believe the funding was adequate. And sending files back to department officials was not a form of pressure, she added.

"That's 4.5 per cent of files where I used my discretionary power," she said. "I don't call that pressure. I call that doing my job as minister."

Ms. Normandeau was also asked about Bruno Lortie, her former chief of staff, who was on the stand on Tuesday.

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Mr. Lortie had close ties with Roche engineering executive Marc-Yvan Côté, a former Liberal member of the legislature. Mr. Lortie described him as being like family, and he would often push for files involving Roche as a result.

Through Mr. Côté, Roche was involved in organizing fundraising events for the party and donated heavily too.

Other witnesses testified that Mr. Lortie often interfered in the handing out of subsidies and was closely involved. On the stand, Mr. Lortie had trouble remembering many of the details.

Initially, Ms. Normandeau said she trusted Mr. Lortie, but later agreed the allegations were troubling.

"If Mr. Lortie gave inside information to Roche, it's reprehensible and inexcusable," Ms. Normandeau said, but cautioned the allegations are unproven.

Ms. Normandeau's name surfaced at the inquiry in 2012 after allegations she received gifts such as Céline Dion concert tickets and roses from controversial construction boss Lino Zambito.

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Ms. Normandeau said that she did not know Mr. Zambito and had met him only four times, including the concert. The tickets came through Mr. Lortie and she now regrets going.

Ms. Normandeau has insisted she was not influenced by the gifts and was not involved in illegal fundraising.

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