Quebec Liberals push back against inquiry testimony

MONTREAL - Rocked by allegations of illegal financing, the Quebec Liberals mounted a counter-attack in defence of their party's reputation Wednesday.

MONTREAL – Rocked by allegations of illegal financing, the Quebec Liberals mounted a counter-attack in defence of their party’s reputation Wednesday.

The most aggressive response came from a party member who questioned the credibility of the star witness at Quebec’s corruption inquiry.

David Whissell was among several prominent Liberals who responded to the latest testimony at the inquiry but he was the only one to criticize the key witness.

Whissell, an ex-cabinet minister, took direct aim at Lino Zambito, the former construction boss whose testimony has shaken Quebec’s political and business class.

Whissell not only denied the claim that a member of his entourage solicited an illegal $50,000 cash donation from Zambito — an allegation he called unrelated to reality.

He also questioned Zambito’s credibility after his own testimony in recent days implicated him in collusion and bid-rigging schemes.

“I want to remind you that Mr. Zambito is someone who has been arrested, who is charged with crimes, who is seen on video giving money to the Mafia, who pressured municipal officials,” Whissell told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview.

“He’s someone who is a criminal and I think we’re too easily taking his words to be the truth.”

Zambito has testified that a cartel of construction companies conspired to drive up the cost of public contracts and split the profits with the Mob, the City of Montreal’s ruling party, and corrupt officials. None of those allegations before the inquiry have been proven in court.

The pushback against Zambito began Wednesday after he took on a new target: provincial politics.

Zambito alleged that Christian Cote, an engineer who worked as an organizer for Whissell, solicited a $50,000 cash payment to a Liberal fund in exchange for help with a business problem.

Zambito said the cash request was quickly withdrawn when he complained to a senior party figure, while his business problem was abruptly solved anyway.

He said the issue was resolved during a meeting with longtime Liberal power-broker Pierre Bibeau — who he said made a phone call to his son, Alexandre, who was the top official in Whissell’s office.

Whissell said he spoke with the principal actors and they denied the claim.

“I spoke to Mr. Cote and he said never was there a question of $50,000,” Whissell said. “I spoke to Alexandre Bibeau, my former chief of staff, and he said he’d never heard of this story.”

For his part, Pierre Bibeau said through a spokeswoman at Loto-Quebec, where he is currently a senior executive, that he would not comment for the time being.

Quebec’s former deputy premier also defended herself Wednesday.

Nathalie Normandeau dismissed the idea that her integrity could be compromised by a few dozen roses and Celine Dion concert tickets. She issued a curt statement following explosive allegations at the province’s ongoing inquiry.

Normandeau, now out of politics, did not deny receiving gifts from Zambito. This was after the star witness told the inquiry that he sent Normandeau 40 red roses on her 40th birthday, as well as concert tickets.

But she said such trinkets never swayed her decision-making.

“I will reaffirm that I always did my work with rigour while remaining conscious of the importance of honouring citizens’ trust,” Normandeau said in a statement released Wednesday.

“I will not let anyone call into question my integrity.”

She is the same high-ranking politician who called a news conference to condemn Maclean’s magazine when it ran a cover two years ago that called Quebec Canada’s most corrupt province, illustrated by an image of Bonhomme Carnaval holding a briefcase stuffed with cash.

Normandeau denied knowing anything about illegal fundraising.

Zambito had told the inquiry that, while organizing an event headlined by Normandeau, he pumped money through third-party intermediaries to circumvent Quebec’s electoral contribution limits.

Normandeau says that doesn’t mean she did anything wrong.

“Like many of my ministerial colleagues I was asked to participate in fundraising activities,” Normandeau said in her statement. “Over the years I took part in dozens of these events and did so all across Quebec. That being said, I never participated in organizing these activities.”

Also named in Zambito’s testimony was Helene Daneault, a member of the new Coalition party.

That party, boasting anti-corruption whistleblower Jacques Duchesneau, has cast itself as the solution to the sleaze that has allegedly permeated Quebec politics. But even the Coalition has taken its lumps during Zambito’s testimony.

Daneault, a former small-town mayor, said she had no idea if she attended the Normandeau fundraiser with a ticket that was paid for by Zambito. Zambito testified that he paid for it.

In a statement, Daneault said she was never told that any of her appearances might have been paid for by any person or company; she said she assumed that, as mayor of Rosemere, when she was invited to a political event she was there as an honoured guest.

Daneault said she never received any receipt from the Liberal party and wasn’t aware of anyone using her name to make donations.

Other Liberals were left defending their party’s reputation Wednesday.

The party’s interim leader said he had spoken with party officials and was assured that illegal fundraising tactics were never used or tolerated.

Jean-Marc Fournier said he also asked party officials to examine whether new control mechanisms might be necessary to ensure donations are clean.

Fournier also announced the party will be seeking participant status before the inquiry. He urged that the inquiry be allowed to conduct its work before conclusions are drawn.

In Quebec City, the new Parti Quebecois government was singing a different tune.

Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for democratic reform, told reporters that Zambito’s testimony shows the Liberals are funded with illegal money.

Drainville said it was time to “clean the system,” to increase its level of integrity, and to “put an end to the power of money.”

The PQ has proposed limiting political contributions to political parties to $100 per person, per year.

Zambito’s testimony resumes next Monday, after a break this week. He has hinted that his string of allegations about wrongdoing at the City of Montreal are but the tip of the iceberg and has promised to describe similar behaviour in other jurisdictions.

The testimony about the Normandeau fundraiser and Whissell’s entourage were Zambito’s first foray into provincial politics during his five days on the inquiry witness stand.