Nathalie Normandeau, says Nathalie Normandeau, is a proud Liberal, an even prouder native Gaspésienne and, above all else, a dedicated public servant devoted to helping rural Quebecers. Having become, at 27, the youngest mayor in Quebec (Maria, pop. 2,500), Normandeau was plucked from the Podunk confines of municipal politics by Jean Charest in 1998 to run for the mighty Liberals. “I was difficult to convince,” Normandeau said under oath today, “but what motivated me was that I could do for my entire region what I did for my village.”
You’d almost forget Normandeau is a disgraced former minister in Jean Charest’s Liberal government, who in 2011 left under a cloud of alleged favouritism, illegal campaign financing and influence peddling—and who came to represent everything that was wrong with the Liberal Party of Quebec. Three years after leaving active politics, Normandeau returned to testify in front of the Charbonneau commission investigating corruption in Quebec’s construction industry.
Normandeau, you’ll remember, sashayed into the national spotlight in 2012, when the Radio-Canada investigative journalism program Enquête found out that Normandeau, at the time Quebec’s municipal affairs minister, had received Céline Dion tickets and 40 roses from a contractor bidding on a multi-million-dollar contracts with Normandeau’s ministry.
The contractor, Lino Zambito, testified that he organized a fundraiser to the tune of $110,000 for Normandeau, who was also vice-premier. An obvious boon to the party, these fundraisers were also licence for dodgy contributions, as Zambito pointed out: firms would have their employees donate the maximum amount, $3,000, and then reimburse them. These “straw man” donations are prohibited under Quebec electoral law.
Neither roses, Céline Dion tickets nor patently illegal fundraising activities were the main subjects of Normandeau’s testimony today. Nor was the proposed water treatment plant that police allege Normandeau used her influence to steer to Liberal-friendly engineering firm Roche—that episode is the subject of an ongoing court case, and therefore untouchable by the Charbonneau commission.
Rather, today’s testimony touched in large part on how Roche had the uncanny ability to score Municipal Affairs ministry contracts during Normandeau’s five-year ministerial tenure. To wit: according to commission figures, Roche benefited 14 of 32 “enhanced” subsidies between 2005 and 2009. Personally approved by Normandeau using her discretionary powers, these increased subsidies meant the certain projects went ahead over the objections of ministerial staff. (The firm BPR came in a distant second with six.)
The cynic would say Roche was essentially the beneficiary of a make-work project funded by Quebec taxpayers and administered through Normandeau’s office. The cynic would also have plenty more to chew on: Roche’s donations to the Liberal party—through that “straw man” scheme—spiked when the Liberals came to power in 2003, and reached $42,700 from 2003 to 2010, according to commission figures. BPR was again a second-place punter, with $13,100 during the same time period.
For dessert, the cynic could feast on the fact that Bruno Lortie, Normandeau’s chief of staff for eight years, had as a mentor/father figure a fellow named Marc-Yvan Côté. As it happens, Côté was a former Liberal cabinet minister and fundraiser who after leaving active politics became chief of business development for… Roche.
And here’s a nightcap: along with being Normandeau’s chief of staff, Lortie “co-ordinated” her fundraising. This wasn’t a small job, as Normandeau herself admitted today. As a Liberal minister, she was expected to harvest at least $100,000 a year for the party. Powerful and telegenic, Normandeau was in heavy rotation on the fundraising circuit. “I was very in demand, I took the role as militant Liberal very seriously,” she testified today.
As one might expect, Normandeau’s testimony was a model of artful obfuscation. She knew Côté and Lortie were friends, she said, but didn’t know they were “very friendly.” Fundraising wasn’t a conduit for companies like Roche to curry favour with ministers; rather, it “is necessary for democracy… a way to rally the party faithful,” she said.
When commission chair France Charbonneau pointed out how asking ministers to fundraise for the party puts them in an inherent conflict of interest, Normandeau said she had “an impassable wall between her duties as Liberal militant and Liberal minister.”
“I worked like crazy, I needed someone I could trust. That person was Bruno Lortie,” Normandeau said, before calmly throwing him under a bus. She knew nothing about “straw man” fundraising or alleged backroom deals with Roche; Lortie, she said, “might have betrayed my trust.”
Normandeau uttered her most telling phrase of the day as she was under cross-examination from Parti Québécois lawyer Estelle Tremblay. Tremblay tried to get the former minister to admit that the Liberal party and its politicians were ethically challenged. Normandeau would have none of it. “There is an ethical problem implicating all of Quebec’s political class,” she said.