MONTREAL – The landmark Quebec election-financing law that inspired similar reforms across Canada has been systematically flouted since its inception, a witness at a provincial corruption inquiry recalled Tuesday.
The elderly political organizer said that, within three years of the Rene Levesque-initiated political reform of 1977, unscrupulous fundraisers were already circumventing them.
The law was introduced by Levesque’s Parti Quebecois in the wake of scandals tied to the previous Bourassa Liberals; it banned corporate donations and limited personal contributions in Quebec.
It has since been emulated in numerous jurisdictions including the federal level, where donations can no longer come from companies and must be less than $1,000 per person.
But the latest witness at the Charbonneau commission, retired engineering executive and political organizer Gilles Cloutier, said the vast majority of money collected by political parties is illegal.
Cloutier estimated that less than 10 per cent of funds collected at the municipal level, and 20 per cent at the provincial level, actually came from legal eligible donors.
As for the rest, he said, corporate money quickly breached the barricade set up by the 1977 law. He said it was easy to find people to pose as donors because they would get reimbursed, along with the added bonus of a tax credit.
“A few years later — I’d say two or three years later — the law was being outsmarted,” Cloutier, 73, told the inquiry.
“The director general of elections didn’t check and it was easy to find strawmen because of the tax credit. Everyone called me because it was essentially a $300 gift.”
He cited one historic example of where the law was broken: the 1995 Quebec independence referendum. He said he used unaccounted cash to pay for billboards promoting the pro-Canada side. That side ultimately won by less than one percentage point, and Canada stayed together.
Cloutier’s political involvement began with Maurice Duplessis’ now-defunct Union Nationale party and carried on with the Liberals through the just-concluded Charest era.
Cloutier, who has been working in municipal and provincial politics since his teens, has been interviewed previously by Radio-Canada’s investigative show Enquete.
He is not an engineer but worked with engineering firms Roche and Dessau in business development. His wealth of municipal and provincial contacts was his bread and butter and he was hired to help companies get contracts and rig elections.
In the early years, he said, he would offer cows, television sets, washer-dryers and the promise of paved roads in order to bribe voters.
He described the 1995 independence vote as a particularly tough battle.
Signs were constantly being destroyed in suburbs north of Montreal, where he was in charge of the campaign. He had to hire private security to help and, Cloutier said, those expenses were among the ones that went undeclared.
It’s not the first time the pro-Canada side has admitted to ignoring spending limits spelled out in the provincial referendum law.
During the sponsorship scandal an ex-federal bureaucrat, Chuck Guite, described how he would “bend” the rules to fill Quebec with advertising for the No side. He credited the tactic with keeping the country together, and said the now-infamous sponsorship program stemmed from that experience.
The inquiry also began to look more closely at financing elsewhere in Quebec, like the so-called “turn-key” elections conducted in smaller municipalities.
“Turn-key” elections are when companies, like construction and law firms, provide everything and candidates step right into a privately financed campaign operation.
Cloutier offered the inquiry a crash course in election-rigging.
He said he owned a pair of numbered companies that would launder money destined for political coffers, while he also worked for engineering firms.
Most of his turn-key elections were conducted while he worked for Roche. He estimated that he had organized up to 60 election campaigns while at Roche — and lost no more than six.
Cloutier said he had a formula that nearly guaranteed victory. He said he assigned points to each of four conditions: quality of the candidate, financing, organization and communications. He explained that he marked each category out of 25, and wanted to see a score of 20 on each.
If he hit those scores, the election was as good as won, Cloutier said.
Cloutier testified that it was common to have two sets of books, one official document filed with the party and elections officials, and a second set containing the real expenses.
The unregistered cash would pay phone operators, printers, people to put up election signs, and communications firms.
Cloutier said many party official agents were aware there were two sets of books but most did not ask any questions. Those who did ask questions were told to back off.
Also Tuesday, he provided support for previous testimony that led to the resignation of Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay.
He was asked to examine a document that appeared to show two sets of books for the Union Montreal party during a 2004 municipal byelection.
Previous witness Martin Dumont, a former Union Montreal aide, had testified there were two sets of books and that Tremblay was aware.
Tremblay and the party’s official agent both denied such double-accounting and that the mayor was present at any meeting where it was discussed. But Cloutier, after perusing the document, testified that it was clear to him there were two sets of books.
Cloutier also said he was one of a half-dozen engineering executives solicited directly by the city’s former No. 2 politician, Frank Zampino, for a $100,000 cash donation in exchange for securing Montreal construction contracts.
Zampino, then a candidate, allegedly presented him with a list of firms that had bought in. After a discussion amongst superiors, he said, Roche agreed to pay the unusually steep price.
However, one year after the election, contracts were drying up and Cloutier said he sought an audience with the mayor. He said Tremblay passed the file back to Zampino.
“Give us the work. We paid for it,” Cloutier says he told Tremblay and his right-hand man. A day later, a big city contract was given to Roche.
Cloutier also said that, in 2004, he told Tremblay that he should fire Bernard Trepanier, the party bagman now dubbed ‘Mr. Three Per Cent’ in Quebec media reports.
Cloutier said he told the mayor that Trepanier often played with the financial numbers. Trepanier was ultimately fired, but only two years later, in 2006.
In most of his political battles, Cloutier came out a winner. He said some elections were so well-organized that even the margin of victory could be predicted in advance.
“In some municipalities, we were able to determine how much a candidate could win by,” Cloutier said.
“It gave people confidence to know how much they’d win by.”
Cloutier’s testimony continues Wednesday.
© The Canadian Press, 2013