The Parti Québécois government has been accused of "bullying" Quebec's corruption inquiry on the same day a Superior Court justice was accused of money laundering in the latest testimony to target a member of the province's elite.
A terse comment by Premier Pauline Marois urging the Charbonneau commission to tread carefully betrayed the resentment within PQ ranks over testimony that questioned the honesty of a former PQ cabinet minister and struck a blow to the governing party's image as the defender of integrity.
"The commission must do its work and must do it with prudence," Ms. Marois cautioned the inquiry, which is exploring the relationship between illegal political financing and a system of collusion that rigged construction contracts in the province.
Ms. Marois was visibly irritated that the inquiry was examining allegations that former PQ transport minister Guy Chevrette participated in a scheme to rig the awarding of a road-building contract. The party was concerned about being placed in the same league as the Liberals, which have been accused of corrupt practices.
At the same time, star witness and former Liberal bagman Gilles Cloutier accused Superior Court Justice Michel Déziel of having him transform $30,000 in illegal corporate donations into personal donations from pretend donors for a municipal campaign in Blainville, Que., in 1997, when the judge was still a lawyer.
Justice Déziel declined to address the allegation Thursday, and the chief judge of the Superior Court sent the matter to the Canadian Judicial Council for investigation.
"He was part of a fraud," Mr. Cloutier testified. "I thought I should mention it now that he's a judge."
Justice Déziel was named to the bench in 2003, four years after he was cleared on three charges of illegal financing under Quebec's electoral law. He had been accused of collecting illegal contributions for the Action démocratique du Québec in 1994.
The new allegations against a Superior Court judge helped turn away some of the attention against the PQ, but only for a brief moment.
"This annoys me," said PQ deputy premier François Gendron, who complained that the commission was attacking indiscriminately the entire political class. "It annoys me when they aren't careful. This is serious. I have my name and my credibility at stake here."
The PQ comments about the commission created an uproar among opposition parties, which immediately accused Ms. Marois of breaking a fundamental principle involving the separation of power between the executive branch of government and the judiciary.
"This is completely unacceptable. She is interfering with the independence of the commission," said Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault. "It is a form of intimidation."
The party's justice critic, Jacques Duchesneau, said: "This is political bullying. It requires a retraction and an apology."
Mr. Duchesneau said he found it odd that when the reputation of other parties was at stake, the PQ said nothing. Then the PQ was attacked, and Ms. Marois asked for a more cautious approach.
The Liberals, which have often been at the centre of allegations of corruption during testimony, called on Ms. Marois to make a statement to clarify her comments.
"It is an attack on the separation of power," Liberal justice critic Gilles Ouimet said. "The Premier must rectify her comments and give the impression that she was not interfering with the work of the commission. … This is a veiled threat and must be condemned."
Ms. Marois's comments were all the more surprising for the opposition parties given that when the Liberals were in power, the PQ demanded for two years that former premier Jean Charest create an independent probe into corruption in the construction industry and the awarding of government contracts. Now that it exists, the opposition said the Premier should allow the commission total independence to conduct its inquiry.
Later in the day, Ms. Marois refused to back down on her comments, saying simply that she had full confidence in the commission's mandate.
As she spoke, a PQ lawyer chipped away at the credibility of the Liberal fundraiser, Mr. Cloutier, who was reluctant to admit he had acted dishonestly over decades of rigging municipal elections and funnelling illegal donations to provincial parties – especially the Liberals.
"There was nothing 'false' about the elections we ran. We spent a lot of money, but the electors had their say," said Mr. Cloutier, who has admitted he was engaged in shady political financing dating back to the 1950s.
"My conscience tells me I wasn't dishonest because it was within the morals of the time."