Loose-cannon Bellemare's charges are explosive

The premier had little choice but to order a probe of the charges

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Who is Marc Bellemare, and why is he saying all those terrible things about Jean Charest, calling him a liar and a cheat?

Bellemare, a Quebec City lawyer, was a star Liberal candidate in the 2003 election and briefly served as justice minister in the first Charest government before abruptly resigning only a year later. He's also known as a bit of a loose cannon and in that sense may not be a reliable witness.

Nevertheless, in television interviews with Radio-Canada and TVA on Monday, Bellemare levelled explosive allegations of influence-peddling by Liberal Party bagmen and official corruption against the premier.

Bellemare said he witnessed cash changing hands at Liberal Party headquarters and another location in Quebec City, and that when he informed Charest, the premier did nothing.

Furthermore, he said party bagmen intervened with him to name two or three candidates to the provincial court, and that again when he informed Charest, the premier again did nothing.

Well, let's consider these charges, which reflect on the probity of election financing, the independence of the judiciary and the integrity of the premier and his office. We're only talking about the foundations of the modern democratic state.

First, Bellemare says Charest was fully informed about cash donations to the Liberals. But cash donations, as long as they are under $200, are permitted. The question is, were party bagmen delivering individual donations of $200 bundled together into thousands of dollars? Unless cash donations in that amount were reported to the director-general of elections, there is no way of knowing. That's the advantage of cash, as we saw at the Gomery Commission: It's usually pretty difficult to trace.

René Lévesque always said that his proudest achievement as premier was the campaign finance reform of 1977, which banned corporate and union donations and limited individual donations to parties to $3,000 per year. There are ways around it, such as companies paying employees bonuses that are then turned over to parties, but fundamentally Lévesque's law has stood the test of time. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it has been copied in other electoral jurisdictions, including Ottawa, in Jean Chrétien's campaign reform of 2003, and again in the Harper government's Federal Accountability Act of 2006.

Then, Bellemare accuses Charest of being complicit in the appointment of two or three provincial judges whose nominations were supported by party bagmen on behalf of their friends in the Quebec construction industry. No one can explain what a couple of judges could do for construction magnates, and that's where Bellemare's story goes sideways. Welcome to the grassy knoll!

The system of judicial appointments has also been reformed to remove undue influence. If you want to be a judge of the provincial or federal court, you have to apply, and you are then vetted by the bar and senior members of the judiciary, who then forward names on an updated short list for consideration by the justice minister. Judges are appointed by the minister after consulting the premier, the only point in the process where appointments are susceptible to political influence. Charest would not be the first premier in history to have named a friend of the party in power to the bench, but the process ensures that only qualified candidates make the short list.

What is to be done?

Charest, understandably furious, says that if Bellemare doesn't retract his charges, he will sue, probably for libel and defamation of character. The premier is well within his rights to do so. Speaking on television, as opposed to the legislature or before a commission of inquiry, Bellemare has no immunity. But it would be unprecedented to have a premier take a former member of his own government to court.

"It ain't about me," Charest quipped yesterday as he announced his intention to name a commission of inquiry into the appointment of judges.

"I think it's important that we be able to address the integrity of the justice system in Quebec," Charest told a news conference in Quebec City. "I want to get to the bottom of this."

In tactical terms, naming an inquiry pre-empts a firestorm in the legislature, and avoids a parliamentary commission, which would begin as a fishing expedition and end as a witch-hunt. It's both the right and smart thing to do.

In terms of campaign finance, the director-general of elections has full powers as an independent officer of the legislature to conduct his own inquiries.

In larger terms, Charest needs to re-engage as the leader of his own government. He has been badly off form for months. There's a reason his disapproval rating has zoomed to 77 per cent in a Léger poll, and it's not just because of his budget. It's because Charest hasn't been in the game.

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