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Couillard a likely debate target as Quebec campaign poised to get even rougher

Liberal leader Philippe Couillard leavs City Hall following a meeting with Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre on March 26 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

One of the nastiest Quebec election campaign ever could get even rougher as the leaders for the four main parties will face off in a televised debate Thursday night, amid a frenzy of mudslinging over allegations of corruption and other financial malfeasance.

The campaign, which was expected to be about identity policics and the Parti Québécois's Charter of Values, took on referendum-like tones during its first half as Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard successfully waved the spectre of Quebec sovereignty to gain ground in the polls.

Now, with Mr. Couillard the front-runner but polling figures still forecasting a tight race, the Liberal leader's rivals are expected to raise questions about ethics and integrity.

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The following allegations are expected to be flung around:

Personal finances

Mr. Couillard is likely to be attacked about Radio-Canada's report Wednesday that he kept an offshore account on the island of Jersey in the 1990s.

Mr. Couillard worked as a neurosurgeon in Saudi Arabia between 1992 and 1996. During that period, he deposited $600,000 that he earned in an account with the Royal Bank of Canada's international branch on Jersey.

Mr. Couillard says that the account was legal and publicly declared. He paid taxes on the interests earned in that account when he returned home in 1996. He no longer has the account after he and his wife separated in 2000.

Fiscal experts say that Mr. Couillard didn't act illegally. He had no fiscal obligations since he wasn't a Quebec resident at the time. Nevertheless, on Thursday, the PQ, the Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec Solidaire were portraying the Liberal leader as someone who wasn't forthcoming about his finances until cornered by journalists.

PQ candidate Bernard Drainville went further, portraying Mr. Couillard as an ingrate who dodged taxes and didn't give back after he got medical training in Quebec. "Why didn't he pay taxes in Quebec?" Mr. Drainville repeatedly said during a media event.

The Liberals fired back by noting that, unlike PQ Leader Pauline Marois, Mr. Couillard has been willing to release financial statements for himself and his spouse.

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The move was aimed at pushing the spotlight back on Ms. Marois's husband, the financier Claude Blanchet.

The PQ campaign has kept Mr. Blanchet out of sight during the campaign to evade questions about him. Earlier this year, he has been defending himself after the Charbonneau inquiry heard that Mr. Blanchet had business dealings with the investment fund of the FTQ trade union.

The missing $428,000

Even if he fends off the issue of the offshore account, Mr. Couillard still has to deal with the legacy of his party's long stint in power.

Three weeks ago, unsealed warrant applications revealed that UPAC, the province's special anti-corruption police squad, was investigating political financing and went searching for documents belonging to Liberal organizer Marc Bibeau last July.

The court documents says investigators were interested in a list detailing 20 fundraisers that collected $700,615, including "a single activity," organized by someone whose name was blacked out, that gathered $428,150.

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Even though there is already a criminal investigation, the PQ has kept the matter in the headlines by filing a complaint to the chief electoral officer, noting that the $428,150 does not appear to have been reported.

"I have asked the party to check into this," Mr. Couillard told reporters Wednesday. "I've been told there are no signs of this activity in the books of the party.

In a statement, Mr. Bibeau denied having organized any activity that collected $428,150. He said no single fundraising event could collect that much money.

"This amount probably represents the sum of a set of personal donations to the Liberal Party over a period of several months, all of which would have been individually tallied in accordance with the law," Mr. Bibeau wrote.

The delayed police actions

Even as it attacked the Liberals, the PQ has had to deal with damaging leaks.

First, the PQ had to admit that last February two police investigators informally met with party executive-director Sylvain Tanguay and finance director Pierre Séguin to talk about the PQ structure and fundraising.

La Presse then reported that UPAC's investigation into party financing didn't just target the Liberals but also the PQ, with some police actions, such as executing a search warrant, being postponed until after the April 7 vote so it wouldn't appear as meddling in the political campaigning.

The report said the investigation was looking at an engineering firm that had contacts with both the Liberals and the PQ.

The third man

The brawling hasn't just been a two-way affair between the Liberals and the PQ.

François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, has been operating with the elbow room allowed by the fact that his fledging party has never been in power. He has boasted that his party has not been visited by anyone from UPAC.

In recent days, Mr. Legault has mostly focused his rhethoric on Mr. Couillard since polls show that the CAQ's support has been leaking to the Liberals.

However, Mr. Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, hasn't spared his previous political partners.

Two days ago, Ms. Marois was saying that it was troubling that under Mr. Charest each cabinet minister had to meet a $100,000 annual fundraising quota, opening the door to abuses.

On Wednesday, Mr. Legault undercut her by revealing that the PQ had a $80,000 target when he was in cabinet.

"At each caucus meeting, they'd bring out the fundraising list ranking those who had reach a percentage of their target. We tried to shame those who were at the bottom of the list," Mr. Legault told reporters.

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