MONTREAL – Under the scorching glare of Quebec’s corruption inquiry, not even national heroes are safe from unwanted attention.
Just ask Jean Beliveau.
The Montreal Canadiens great was surprised to hear his name come up Wednesday during the testimony of a crooked political organizer who shmoozed celebrities.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Beliveau told The Canadian Press. “Politics, construction, that’s not something I participated in.
“I got offers in politics, but I always said no.”
He said he’s known Gilles Cloutier for years, because the man was involved in a number of charitable causes, such as the Jean Beliveau Foundation for underprivileged children.
It just so happens that Cloutier was also involved in a far more lucrative cause: currying favour with politicians, so that they would reward the engineering company he worked for with millions in rigged public-works contracts.
And what better way to wow a small-town mayor than to set up a personal audience with Beliveau, the most beloved of Montreal Canadiens legends.
Cloutier shared the hockey story Wednesday at Quebec’s inquiry, where he has given numerous examples of how he broke election laws in his decades as an engineering exec and political fixer.
He said his company, Roche Engineering Inc., wanted to win a multimillion-dollar water treatment contract a decade ago in St-Stanislas-de-Kostka, a tiny town in southeastern Quebec.
He said that, at the mayor’s suggestion, he invited the mayor and his grandson to a Canadiens game.
“(The mayor) says, ‘I have a grandson. He’s never been to the Bell Centre — I’d like to take him. Do you have tickets?'” recalled Cloutier, now age 73 and retired.
During the first intermission, he brought them up to the oldtimers’ lounge. Waiting there was Beliveau, the longtime captain so celebrated for his grace off the ice that he was once offered the post of Canada’s governor general.
“I’d prepared Jean Beliveau a few days earlier,” Cloutier said.
“There was a nice cardboard box (Beliveau’s) wife Elise had prepared. He gave them the box as a gift. The grandfather says, ‘Open it.’ (The grandson) opens it. And there’s a nice sweater of the Canadiens Hockey Club of Jean Beliveau.”
Beliveau signed it above his famous No. 4.
“The little guy was crying,” Cloutier said. ”The grandfather was crying. It was quite a story. They were very happy.”
As it turned out, Roche Engineering Inc. wound up being happy, too.
Cloutier said that a few days later, when he spoke with the mayor, the now-deceased Maurice Vaudrin, he couldn’t stop talking about the event.
Which pleased Cloutier: “That’s when I knew I had him,” he explained Wednesday.
At the next council meeting, he said, the company was granted the contract to begin performing exploratory work on the project.
Beliveau received news of the testimony while at home on Montreal’s south shore, where he has been recovering from a stroke.
The 81-year-old expects to be well enough to attend the second and fifth games of the Canadiens’ first-round playoff series. He says games No. 2 and 5 tend to be the most pivotal in a series.
Like most Quebecers, he is aware of what’s going on at the Charbonneau inquiry. But he was caught off-guard by what he heard Wednesday.
“I know Mr. Cloutier. I knew he was involved in politics. But I never thought what I saw and heard on television the last two days,” said Beliveau.
“The system he created — I never heard of that.”
When it came to politics, Beliveau said, he turned down two Senate offers from Brian Mulroney and one to become governor general from Jean Chretien — and that was about the extent of his involvement.
As for the sweater he gave out to the mayor and his grandson, Beliveau said: “I’ve given out a lot of sweaters in the last 60 years… (Cloutier) asked me if I would present it to the little boy. I said sure. I had no idea what was behind that.”
That story was just one of numerous surprising anecdotes delivered during Cloutier’s two-day turn on the witness stand which has shaken Quebec’s political class, having hit different parties and different levels of government.
In fact, some of the allegations from Cloutier have been so incendiary that news reports Wednesday in Quebec treated the Beliveau story as an afterthought.
The latest salvo Wednesday was his account of a $100,000 payment to a friend of Guy Chevrette, then a Parti Quebecois transport minister, for access to the minister. Cloutier said that after the payment was made to the friend, he got help winning a public-works contract.
Chevrette issued a statement vehemently denying the story, calling it diffamatory, and said he hoped to be allowed to testify at the probe as soon as possible.
Cloutier’s involvement in politics dates back more than a half-century and, in the 1990s, he was hired by the engineering company to help with so-called “business development” — in other words, winning public-works contracts.
He told the inquiry how he flooded municipal election campaigns with corporate money, which is illegal in Quebec, and then obtained construction contracts after his candidates won.
Sometimes he acted as a facilitator, putting friends at one level of government in touch with others at another level.
For example, the mayor of St-Stanislas needed an $11.5-million provincial grant to get that water-treatment project going.
Cloutier said he successfully lobbied a prominent Quebec cabinet minister, current Liberal parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Fournier, for it.
He would organize an annual event at the Olympic Stadium for the Montreal Expos’ baseball Opening Day where municipal politicians mingled with provincial ones, and they all mingled with celebrities.
The celebrities at the last such event, held before the Expos folded in 2004, included Beliveau and fellow Habs alumni Henri Richard and Pierre Bouchard, along with a famous Quebec comedian, Yvon Deschamps.
Even Roman Catholic Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte was there.
The event was featured in a video presented Wednesday at the inquiry. There is no allegation that anyone in the video did anything wrong and some of the people in it had no obvious connection to, or involvement in, the construction industry.
-With files by Peter Rakobowchuk