Quebec Liberals are scrambling to distance themselves from damaging disclosures of gifts, questionable fund-raising and illegal donations that surfaced at Quebec's corruption probe.
Former deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau says she was never influenced by gifts of roses and free Celine Dion tickets given to her by construction entrepreneur Lino Zambito.
"I want to reaffirm that I have always rigorously fulfilled my duties while being aware of the importance of honouring the confidence citizens placed in me," Ms. Normandeau said in a statement. "Today I won't let anyone call into question my integrity."
She was one of several current and former Liberals who spent Wednesday trying to limit the damage from statements by Mr. Zambito, former head of a Quebec construction company. During testimony made public on Tuesday, Mr. Zambito described a system where engineering, law and construction firms made illegal contributions to the Quebec Liberal Party in return for lucrative provincial and municipal government contracts.
The kickbacks described by Mr. Zambito were part of an elaborate scheme that included fundraising tactics that got around the province's political financing laws and amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions for the Liberal Party. Mr. Zambito also disclosed that he paid for Ms. Normandeau's tickets to attend a Celine Dion concert and even sent her a bouquet of 40 roses for her 40th birthday.
His testimony before Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau could also have an impact on the Liberal leadership race to replace Jean Charest.
Philippe Couillard, the perceived front-runner in the leadership race, said he was unaware of illegal fundraising activities when he was health minister from 2003 to 2008 in the Charest government. Mr. Couillard believes the laws need to be changed in order to eliminate the illegal fundraising practices.
"I don't think we need so much money for political campaigns," Mr. Couillard said. "For instance, we could lower the amounts individuals are allowed to contribute to political parties and compensate with public financing." He suggested that the maximum annual individual contributions should be reduced to between $100 and $500 in order to eliminate illegal donations.
Leadership candidate Raymond Bachand also denounced what he said was an illegal scheme to raise funds for the party. "This is not a practice that is encouraged and authorized. And the day I become leader of the Liberal Party, anyone caught participating in a scheme like this will no longer be with us," he said.
New party financing rules were adopted by the former Liberal regime that now limits contributions to $1,000 a year.
Interim Liberal leader Jean-Marc Fournier acknowledged that the revelations were "troubling" and could damage both his party and the entire political class in Quebec.
During his testimony, Mr. Zambito revealed that during fundraising events, the $3,000 maximum annual contribution allowed by an individual to a political party was often exceeded. Mr. Zambito said he hosted an event in 2008 for Ms. Normandeau where participants, mainly the heads of construction and engineering firms, paid $5,000 each, well above the legal limit. The amounts were then placed in the names of fake "donors," often the spouses, family members or business associates of the heads of the firms who made the illegal contributions. Mr. Zambito raised $110,000 during the event but only $77,500 was reported by the party.
The Parti Québécois government is seeking all-party support for its proposed reforms to party financing. Bernard Drainville, the Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions, said the testimony before the commission "confirms once again that we need to clean up the system of party financing, we have to reduce the influence of money, we have to end the system of false donors and we have to end the power of fundraisers."
Another Liberal leadership candidate, Pierre Moreau, was surprised to hear that during testimony before the commission Mr. Zambito stated that Christian Côté, a fundraiser for former Liberal minister David Whissell, allegedly met him and demanded a $50,000 contribution.
"This is extortion," Mr. Moreau said. "This is a situation that would immediately be condemned because it is a criminal act."
Mr. Whissell denies the allegations and is calling Mr. Zambito's credibility into question. "This story, to me, is completely crazy," he told Radio-Canada.