News  Premier caught in scandal over judge appointments

Key witness supports accusations of influence peddling in the courts

Already facing record-low poll numbers, accusations of corrupt fundraising, and an unpopular budget, Premier Jean Charest and the Quebec Liberal party are now threatened by new evidence that confirms allegations of influence peddling in the judicial appointment process.

On Monday September 20, former associate deputy minister in the justice department Georges Lalande corroborated claims that former justice minister Marc Bellemare received undue pressure from Liberal fundraisers to select particular judges.

He was called to testify as part of the Bastarache Commission, an investigation into Bellemare’s claims that has prompted a majority of Quebeckers to support the Premier Jean Charest’s resignation, making the likelihood of a Liberal re-election in 2012 appear dim.

Charles Rondeau, one of the fundraisers mired in suspicion because of their lobbying efforts, testified before the commission Tuesday. Rondeau said that he had asked Bellemare to appoint an old schoolfriend Chief Judge of Quebec, but added that his request was casual and that Bellemare was unsurprised to receive it, contrary to Bellemare’s claims.

Franco Fava, another fundraiser implicated in Bellemare’s accusations, denied all of Bellemare’s and Lalande’s claims. He said that he didn’t know any of the three judges who were appointed. “It’s not something that interested me, the nomination of judges,” he told the commission.

In April, Bellemare alleged that while serving as Minister of Justice in 2003 and 2004, he was pressured by Liberal fundraisers to appoint three judges: Michel Simard, Marc Bisson and Line Gosselin-Després. He claimed that he reported these problems to Charest, and was told to do as the fundraisers said.

The government launched the Bastarache Commission on April 14 to look into these accusations, and Bellemare’s cross-examination began on August 30.

Bellemare’s testimony was on shaky grounds through Monday. His former chief of staff and former press aid testified that Bellemare had never told them about facing “undue pressure” from Liberal fundraisers. His description of the timeline of appointments did not hold up under cross-examination, and was shown to be implausible in parts by Globe and Mail reporter Daniel LeBlanc. He also did not convincingly explain why he waited six years to reveal this information.

However, Lalande’s account confirmed many of Bellemare’s claims – especially concerning his meetings with Liberal fundraiser Fava – with notes from his personal agendas.

“Marc Bellemare does not understand that we need to appoint our friends, in justice just like everywhere else,” Lalande quoted Fava as saying. “They’re beating down the doors after nine years in opposition.”

Lalande stated that Fava had recommended Simard as a candidate for Assistant Chief Judge of Quebec Court, and Gosselin-Després for the youth court. Both these candidates were later named to the bench.

Throughout the commission, public opinion has been starkly in favour of the former justice minister. A recent Léger poll revealed that 58 per cent of respondents believed Bellemare, compared to only 14 per cent in support of Charest. In an earlier poll, 57 per cent of Quebeckers supported Charest’s resignation.

“You have to look at those numbers … in the context of the political reality,” said the Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, Professor Antonia Maioni. “Jean Charest is a very unpopular premier. His government is not doing so well. So I think many Quebeckers are prepared to think anything negative about Jean Charest. I don’t think it’s an all-out endorsement of Bellemare. I just think that many people are unhappy with Jean Charest’s leadership, and therefore ready to be suspicious in what seems to be choosing between one and the other.”

In addition to this controversy, Charest’s government has been plagued by accusations of corrupt financing in the construction industry. A provincial police investigation – called “Opération Marteau” – is already examining this issue.

“The political context of Quebec was, and still is, very ‘chargé’ because the Liberal party is having a hard time at the polls,” Maioni said. “It’s been suffering from a lot of attacks by the Parti Québécois in the National Assembly. … There’s been a lot of pressure on Charest from journalists and opponents and interest groups to actually have a commission, but a commission on the construction industry, not on this. So when all of these accusations started to come out, what Charest did was appoint a commission, but the commission was not to delve into Liberal fundraising…but rather to make sure that the nomination of judges is still transparent and democratic.”

The Bastarache Commission’s ruling will be announced by October 15. It remains to be seen how high public dissatisfaction will affect Charest’s position within the Liberal caucus, and whether the Liberal party can regain public support before the 2012 provincial elections.

“Barring really unforeseen circumstances, [the Liberals] will probably hold their majority [in the National Assembly]…until the next election,” Maioni said. “Whether Jean Charest will be Premier, that’s a separate question. I’m not sure that Jean Charest will last as leader of the party until the next election. … However, once the election is called, I think there’s a very real possibility that the Parti Québécois will win.”