The Quebec Liberals try to clear the slate—but it’s hardly clean

The Quebec Liberals promised a fresh, corruption-free beginning. But escaping the past will not be so simple.
Jean Charest. (CP)
Jean Charest. (CP)

When Quebecers last went to provincial polls in April 2014, they voted for a brand-new, corruption-free Liberal Party. At least, this is what Premier Philippe Couillard reassured those same Quebecers about two years after the fact, on the day police arrested former Liberal Deputy Premier Nathalie Normandeau. First elected in 1998, Normandeau was once a rising star within the scandal-plagued Liberal government of Jean Charest. She resigned under several clouds in 2011.

“Fortunately, we are living in a completely different context,” Couillard told reporters following Normandeau’s March 17 arrest. “The party that I currently lead is exemplary in terms of political financing.” His office promptly put out a six-page letter expressing the party’s “sadness” at her arrest.

Like most political spin, Couillard’s spiel was as swift as it was righteous, coming mere hours after Normandeau’s arrest on seven charges, including influence peddling, criminal conspiracy and bribery, among others. And like most political spin, it didn’t quite pass the smell test.

Couillard’s clean-slate pledges notwithstanding, La Presse reported Normandeau aided the party’s campaign for the 2014 election. “She showed up to our headquarters as a volunteer to help prepare candidates,” Liberal spokesperson Maxime Roy tells Maclean’s, noting that Normandeau “wasn’t an employee.” In 2013, Couillard mused that he wouldn’t be adverse to Normandeau’s political return.

There are other, perhaps more telling ties between Couillard and Jean Charest’s government of yore. Thirteen ministers in Couillard’s 31-member cabinet are veterans of Charest’s own cabinets, including Couillard himself. Couillard has admitted that he partook in the unwritten Liberal pledge of raising at least $100,000 a year for the party when he was health minister. In its November report on corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, the so-called Charbonneau commission said this practice led to widespread infractions against the province’s electoral law.(Couillard was not accused of any wrongdoing in the report.)

Normandeau’s arrest has spawned speculation over what Charest himself might have known about allegedly illegal activity within his own government. Normandeau was Charest’s hand-picked protégé. The former premier plucked her from relative obscurity before the 1998 election; by 2007, she was the second-most powerful politician in the province. During Charbonneau commission hearings, Normandeau’s former press secretary testified that Charest’s office “suggested” Bruno Lortie to be Normandeau’s chief of staff, which she readily accepted. Two sources told Maclean’s that Charest’s office had a hand in selecting all chief of staff positions for Liberal ministers. (A spokesperson at the law firm where Charest is a partner, McCarthy Tétrault, said that Charest is out of the country and will not comment.)

A longtime Liberal operative, Lortie was known for his fundraising prowess. According to testimony, he was particularly adept at a so-called scheme in which employees of large corporations would donate money to the Liberal Party, only to be reimbursed by their employers. These so-called “straw man donations” are illegal under Quebec electoral law.

Others still see Normandeau’s arrest itself as a political gambit on the part of Robert Lafrenière, the director of UPAC, the province¹s anti-corruption squad,. UPAC officers arrested Normandeau less than two weeks before the end of Lafrenière’s five-year mandate; for months, rumours have circulated that the Couillard government wanted to replace him. According to a source close to the investigation, Normandeau’s arrest was Lafrenière’s not-so-subtle reminder of his power to the Liberals.

“Because of this arrest, Couillard can’t get rid of Lafrenière,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. UPAC spokesperson Anne-Frédérick Laurence denied the allegation. “Charges are laid when the investigation is finished, and the proof is established to the prosecutor’s satisfaction,” she said.

As for Normandeau, her ties with the Liberals are still somewhat intact, even if Liberals themselves are publicly disavowing her. She still has her Liberal Party membership card. According to Roy, however, the party won’t be paying her legal bills for her upcoming court case.