Quebec's political leaders returned the union boss's calls with haste, and he bragged incessantly about having them under firm control. But when it came to construction boss Tony Accurso, labour leader Michel Arsenault was not the one in charge, evidence at Quebec's corruption inquiry has revealed.
Wiretaps captured in the late 2000s and played Wednesday at the inquiry told the story: When Mr. Accurso called to complain that Asians were getting lucrative provincial construction contracts, Mr. Arsenault lobbied Premier Jean Charest to stop it. When it emerged that the union's investment fund paid for half of the construction of Mr. Accurso's yacht, Mr. Arsenault turned a blind eye.
Even in his testimony Wednesday before Quebec's inquiry into corruption in the construction, union and political systems, Mr. Arsenault, whose job was to represent workers and invest their retirement funds, lamented the suffering of the one-time construction magnate. Mr. Accurso is facing bribery, fraud and other corruption-related charges.
"It makes me sick, how big they've made the story of Tony Accurso," testified Mr. Arsenault, who ran the Quebec Federation of Labour and chaired its multibillion-dollar investment fund from 2007 to 2013.
Mr. Arsenault returned to the same defence repeatedly: He was acting in the interest of workers employed in the thousands by Mr. Accurso, and investments with Mr. Accurso produced great returns for the QFL's investment fund, he said.
The day at the Charbonneau commission was packed with revelations touching the highest level of Quebec politics, but the significance was not always clear. Former crane company executive Louis-Pierre Lafortune, who is facing a charge of gangsterism, accused former premier Jean Charest of once having accepted a $3,000 cheque from a lobbyist made out to his Liberal riding association. The allegation came out of earlier testimony partially released from a publication ban on Wednesday.
Mr. Charest denied the allegation via the current Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard. "I spoke to Mr. Charest myself and he denied receiving anything of the sort," Mr. Couillard said. So far the inquiry has not publicly released evidence of a cheque.
In testimony Wednesday, Mr. Arsenault was forced to explain why in 2009 he told a union executive they should fund a project of Claude Blanchet, Pauline Marois's husband, to ensure they never have "trouble with her" when the Parti Québécois Leader would become premier.
"It was a tasteless joke," Mr. Arsenault testified. "The investment with Mr. Blanchet was never intended to corrupt Ms. Marois."
Justice France Charbonneau, the head of the inquiry, told Mr. Arsenault the tape gave another impression. "At first glance, it looks very bad," she said. "It looks like blackmail."
In another conversation, Mr. Arsenault said he had "a deal" with Mr. Blanchet and would approach Ms. Marois for help to kill a potential corruption inquiry. Mr. Arsenault testified the conversation was just a brainstorming session. "It was a bad idea, I said it out loud, but I didn't do it," Mr. Arsenault said.
And then there was the yacht called The Touch, which was used to woo a long list of Quebec politicians, labour leaders and businessmen accused of corruption. "We paid for 50 per cent of the boat, damn it," QFL investment fund CEO Yvon Boluc told Mr. Arsenault in a 2009 recording.
The recordings reveal a warm relationship between Mr. Accurso and Mr. Arsenault. Their conversations flipped from the latest corruption revelations in the press to lobbying Mr. Charest to their German vacation plans.
In one recording, Mr. Arsenault tells Mr. Accurso he was forced to write a letter to a newspaper promising he would distance himself from Mr. Accurso. "It changes nothing between us," Mr. Arsenault said.