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Photographers take pictures of France Charbonneau off the closed circuit television in the media room at the Charbonneau inquiry looking into corruption in the Quebec construction industry Monday, September 17, 2012 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Any Quebecker who paid attention knew provincial Liberals would face harsh scrutiny for allegations of shady financing at the Charbonneau inquiry, but the news appears to have come as a shock to the party.

A lawyer for the Liberals made a last-ditch plea Tuesday for the right to cross-examine former construction boss Lino Zambito on an astonishing array of allegations he has made against party operatives and several cabinet ministers concerning unethical conduct and illegal financing.

Unlike the Parti Québécois, the Liberals didn't seek full standing at the inquiry into corrupt contracting practices in the construction industry until the commission was well underway. The very mandate of the commission, which was established by the Liberal government before it lost the Sept. 4 election, names political financing as an area of investigation.

"Our interest began at the moment when reputations are being tainted," said the Liberal party lawyer, Michel Décary.

In an exchange that became testy, commission head France Charbonneau pointed out the Liberals made "a strategic choice" not to intervene before now. "You would have had complete disclosure if you had been here at an opportune time," she said.

Liberal Party president Karl Blackburn sent the commission a letter on May 28 saying the party had no intention of participating in the commission.

"Until today they didn't feel any need to intervene, now all of a sudden they want to go back and get retroactive status," said commission lawyer Claude Chartrand. "I don't see the shadow of any grounds to grant this status."

Much of the testimony targeting the Liberals was delivered under a publication ban that was partially lifted last week. The Liberal lawyer asked for a sort of retroactive standing so he could see the testimony and read statements offered in advance by witnesses but have not been made public.

Ms. Charbonneau granted the Liberals intervener status going forward, but won't allow the party to question witnesses on the prior testimony given under publication ban that was most damaging to the Liberals.

Parts removed from the publication ban and other testimony described a cozy relationship between Mr. Zambito and cabinet ministers such as Nathalie Normandeau, who accepted gifts of concert tickets and roses from the businessman.

Others, such as Line Beauchamp, and the party itself are accused of benefiting from illegal cash donations. For every cabinet minister, there was a handful of party operatives named as middlemen and organized the financing.

The cross-examination of Mr. Zambito by construction companies, municipalities and other interested parties would take much of Tuesday.