MONTREAL — A former Quebec deputy premier was one of seven people arrested by Quebec’s anti-corruption squad over allegations that political financing and gifts were exchanged for lucrative government contracts.
Ex-cabinet minister Nathalie Normandeau, once the second-in-command in Jean Charest’s Liberal government, was among those picked up Thursday in early morning arrests by the province’s anti-corruption unit, known as UPAC.
Also facing charges are: Marc-Yvan Cote, a former Bourassa-era Liberal cabinet minister and vice-president with engineering firm Roche Bruno Lortie, Normandeau’s former chief of staff Mario W. Martel and France Michaud, two former executives with Roche Ernest Murray, a former political aide to ex-Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois and Francois Roussy, the former mayor of Gaspe.
According to charges filed in Quebec Court, the accused face charges that include corruption, fraud toward the government, conspiracy, breach of trust, and using forged documents — the allegations cover a time frame of between 2000 and 2012.
All were questioned and released on a promise to appear in court in Quebec City on April 20th.
“It is unfair and unequal to use political contracts as a political tool,” anti-corruption unit chief Robert Lafreniere told a Montreal news conference. “And it’s also unacceptable to use the power of influence to favour elections.”
Lafreniere said he could not rule out the possibility of more arrests.
Authorities said the “marathon” four-and-a-half year investigation started out as two distinct probes but were merged into one.
“Among the accused, we have on one hand, people from the political class, both on the provincial and municipal levels,” said Andre Boulanger, head of investigations for the anti-corruption unit. “And on the other hand, we have influential administrators from the engineering firm Roche.”
Boulanger said that at different times, and in different ways, laws were circumvented to gain unfair advantages such as gifts, party financing and for some, public contracts.
Normandeau worked for Quebec City radio station FM93. It reported on the arrest and later announced she had been suspended without pay pending the end of the legal proceedings.
Maxime Roy, a lawyer representing Normandeau, denied all seven charges against Normandeau and said she would plead not guilty.
Normandeau testified in 2014 at the Charbonneau Commission, which looked into corruption in the construction industry, as did many of the others arrested on Thursday.
Normandeau, 48, held a seat in the legislature from 1998 until 2011, holding cabinet positions including municipal affairs, natural resources and intergovernmental affairs. She served as deputy premier under Charest between 2007 and 2011.
A spokesman for Charest said the former premier would not be commenting.
Premier Philippe Couillard sought to distance himself from the previous Liberal government, noting that political financing in the province has changed and the practices don’t reflect the party he leads today.
Those changes included capping donations to $100 per person per year. Couillard added the party brought in internal protocols to deal with raising money.
“The ambience is totally different, fundraising is not an issue anymore for us,” Couillard said. “We’re doing politics, we’re talking about ideas, we’re talking with our volunteers all across Quebec, and that’s the way politics should be done.”
The opposition parties reproached Couillard, insisting he take more responsibility.
Quebec Solidaire’s Francoise David said the premier’s statements were premature given that some members of his team served in the previous government.
The PQ’s Agnes Maltais said Couillard, who served alongside Normandeau for five years, could not simply dismiss the actions. As for those linked to her party, Maltais said anyone found responsible for wrongdoing should be made to answer.
“As leader of the Liberal party, Philippe Couillard must as of now cease to sweep these questions under the rug and take responsibility for the actions of members of his party,” she said.
– with files from Alexandre Robillard in Quebec City.