When Jacques Duchesneau made a dramatic entry into the Quebec election campaign, his rivals didn't know how to take him on.
The fear was that any frontal attack on the popular anti-corruption crusader now running for the Coalition Avenir Québec would boost the ex-cop's standing with voters. For a while, the Parti Québécois and the Quebec Liberals shied away from uttering his name.
However, Mr. Duchesneau this week opened himself up to rebukes from the other parties and the commission of inquiry into corruption in the Quebec construction industry.
Although still a larger-than-life presence in the campaign, he no longer seems untouchable. The situation is the first major challenge of the campaign for the Coalition Avenir Québec, testing the new party's ability to put out fires and thrive under stress.
After wrongly stating on Monday that he would select the anti-corruption ministers in a CAQ government, Mr. Duchesneau faced another storm on Tuesday when he said the Charbonneau commission wasted his time when he appeared this spring.
"I was examined and cross-examined for five days and I was never able to get my message across," he told Le Journal de Québec.
The lead counsel for the inquiry, Sylvain Lussier, responded that Mr. Duchesneau underwent extensive pre-interviews with commission staff and was questioned on the stand according to what was discussed.
He added that Mr. Duchesneau gave the commission confidential reports that included vague information and statements from anonymous sources identified by code names, which are still being reviewed.
"Mr. Duchesneau was treated in the same way that we will treat all witnesses at the inquiry," Mr. Lussier said in an interview. "If he had other things to say, he had the opportunity to do it."
Mr. Lussier's intervention is a surprising foray by the independent body into a campaign. He said his goal was to "re-establish the facts" and keep the commission out of the election.
However, the comments pose a serious threat to Mr. Duchesneau`s reputation.
CAQ Leader François Legault jumped to his star candidate's defence, saying that Mr. Duchesneau is willing to go back to the commission on Monday to answer more questions. Hearings are scheduled to resume on Sept. 17, well after the Sept. 4 vote.
Mr. Legault accused Mr. Lussier of "a serious lack of judgment," and failing to exercise the proper restraint as a member of a commission of inquiry. In a statement, he said Mr. Lussier's "strange" remarks "threaten to discredit the apparent neutrality of the Charbonneau commission."
The other main parties tried to capitalize on the controversy, with Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois accusing Mr. Duchesneau of trying to undermine the commission's work.
"It is disconcerting that Mr. Duchesneau would cast doubt over the Charbonneau commission," Ms. Marois said. "If he has something to say, he should reveal it to the commission."
Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest has derided the CAQ, saying it is "improvising" on every big issue. On Tuesday, he attacked Mr. Duchesneau for backing away from his threat to launch new allegations of corruption at the Liberals.
"If he is afraid of lawsuits, it might be because he is not convinced that his information is accurate," Mr. Charest said.
When he testified before the commission last June, Mr. Duchsneau made a shocking claim that 70 per cent of the funding of political parties in Quebec was dirty money. At the time, the lawyer representing the PQ at the commission, Estelle Tremblay, lashed out publicly against his credibility.
The lawyer was called to order by Ms. Marois, but now the PQ leader suggests Ms. Tremblay may have been right.
"Some say that she was a bit too zealous in her reaction when, in fact, she was simply dumbfounded by [Mr. Duchesneau's] responses. Perhaps Mr. Lussier's comments show that she was right," Ms. Marois said.
The PQ Leader said that, if she becomes premier, she would implement the inquiry's recommendations.