Quotes attributed to him don't sound like the Jean Charest I know

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The Gazette, Monday, August 30, 2010

In the quarter century I've known Jean Charest, I've heard him speak hundreds of times, in public and private. I know his voice, and his pitch. And the quotes attributed to him by Marc Bellemare, alleging that he was ordered by the premier to appoint judges at the demand of a Liberal Party bagman, do not sound at all like Jean Charest.

No way. Jean Charest doesn't talk like that. And he would never speak to anyone in that tone of voice.

Bellemare, who was justice minister in the new Charest government for less than a year before resigning in 2004, told the Bastarache Commission last week that the premier ordered him to name two judges at the request of Franco Fava, a Liberal fundraiser in Quebec City.

"Franco told you to name Bisson and Simard. Name them," Bellemare quoted Charest as telling him.

"Franco is a personal friend, he's an influential fundraiser. We need guys like him. We need to listen to him. He's a professional fundraiser. If he tells you to name Simard and Bisson, then name them."

These quotes ring completely false. There isn't even a smidgen of authenticity to them. Charest simply doesn't talk like that. Giving direct orders, in a peremptory tone of voice, is not his style. Charest might have an Irish temper, but one thing he learned from his parents, Red Charest and Rita Leonard, was manners. He is exquisitely courteous and polite, with friends, colleagues and staff alike. I don't know anyone who has ever heard him raise his voice or bark a command.

Dan Gagnier, who was Charest's chief of staff from 2007-2009, agrees.

"That's not Jean's style," Gagnier says. "He would never say that."

Besides, as premier of Quebec, he doesn't have to give orders to make appointments, he just has to sign orders-in-council.

The justice minister makes recommendations for appointments to the provincial court, but the cabinet and the premier approve them. Of course the premier signs off on all appointments, he's the boss and everyone knows it. He has no need to throw his weight around.

And even if a party bagman was pushing a friend for appointment, the candidate would have to apply for the job and pass a peer review. That's how the system works, and, generally speaking, it works very well. Have judges, in their previous private practice, supported one party or another? Of course. That's politics, and lawyers have always been in politics.

If ever Charest might have been disposed to intervene improperly with the judiciary, he learned his lesson more than 20 years ago when he resigned as a minister in the Mulroney government for having made a phone call to a judge.

Ultimately, it will be Bellemare's word against Charest's. He said, he said.

Bellemare testified they met privately, but that's not Charest's style, either.

"The whole time I was there," says Gagnier, "Jean never had a meeting alone in his office with a minister without me or a staffer present. Or if he did, he would brief us right after on what was said. The one time he did have a private meeting was with Philippe Couillard, when he was leaving the government, and even then he called me in to tell me what had happened."

Charest made a mistake last week when he rushed before the cameras to deny Bellemare's accusations. He also said he reserved the right comment occasionally in the future. So, every day the commission sits, he will be asked for a comment. Someone in his office should have cooled him down. Gagnier has played that role.

"He's an intensely human individual," Gagnier says. "And he has emotional reactions when his family or integrity are questioned."

That's Charest's Irish side.

But the media and the Bastarache Commission have a role and responsibility in all this. It's called context, to say nothing of the presumption of innocence.

The hearings are on television, the allegations are explosive. But just because Bellemare says something doesn't make it true. There's another version of the facts, Charest's, and he hasn't yet appeared before the commission.

There's a lot at stake here -- Charest's reputation, and the integrity of the office entrusted to him by the people of Quebec.

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