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Julie Couillard, Bernier’s ex-girlfriend, broke lobbying rules, watchdog says

Julie Couillard in October 2008.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The girl friend of a Conservative cabinet minister acted as an unregistered lobbyist as she promoted a real-estate project in Quebec City to senior officials in the Harper government, the Commissioner of Lobbying has concluded.

The finding against Julie Couillard carries no legal consequences, but it confirms that she had monetary interests when she was dating Conservative minister Maxime Bernier in 2007 and 2008.

In addition to receiving monthly payments of $7,500, Ms. Couillard stood to earn $100,000 to $200,000 if her client, Groupe Immobilier Kevlar Inc., won a contract to build a headquarters for federal bureaucrats in Quebec City.

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While Kevlar was unsuccessful, Ms. Couillard earned $51,000 lobbying Bernard Côté, a Conservative staffer at Public Works and Government Services Canada at the time. Ms. Couillard also discussed the matter with Mr. Bernier, according to an autobiography she wrote after the pair broke up, but the lobbying commissioner determined this would not have required her to register.

"I conclude that Ms. Couillard communicated with a public office holder, for payment, in respect of matters that required her to register as a consultant lobbyist and that she failed to register as required by the Lobbyists Registration Act," Commissioner Karen Shepherd said in a report to Parliament on Tuesday.

Ms. Shepherd confirmed that her findings constitute a simple public reprimand, as her office cannot impose jail terms or even fines for breaches of the lobbying code of conduct. Ms. Shepherd has called on the federal government to give her the power to impose financial penalties in the $25,000 range, but has had no formal response.

In a statement to the commissioner, Ms. Couillard's lawyer said that "it was never her intention to mislead her clients, the public or public office holders. It was also not her intention to act as a lobbyist in contravention of the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct."

Her report on Ms. Couillard caps a strange and controversial episode for the Conservative government.

The story started in May, 2008, with questions about Ms. Couillard's past association with a member of a biker gang.

Mr. Bernier resigned as foreign affairs minister when Ms. Couillard revealed that he had left confidential briefing documents at her home after spending the night.

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The following month, Montreal's La Presse newspaper reported that Ms. Couillard had promoted Kevlar's interests with Mr. Bernier and Mr. Côté.

The RCMP launched an investigation. Federal prosecutors decided in 2010 not to proceed with the case because the statute of limitations had expired.

The lobbying commissioner took over, focusing on the allegations of registered lobbying.

The commissioner found a contract in which Kevlar offered Ms. Couillard monthly payments of $7,500 and a commission of $100,000 to $200,000 if Public Works entered into a 15- to 25-year lease agreement with the firm.

Contrary to the rules, the commissioner found, Ms. Couillard did not publicly register as a lobbyist when she communicated with Mr. Côté, who had responsibilities for real-estate files at Public Works.

Mr. Bernier, who is now a junior minister for tourism and small business, refused to comment on the matter. Lobbying rules that took effect in 2008 make it illegal for a company to pay a commission or a success fee to a lobbyist.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More


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