Quebec's former deputy premier defended herself on Wednesday from the latest volley of provincial corruption allegations, dismissing the idea she could be swayed by gifts of roses and Celine Dion concert tickets and disavowing any role in possible schemes to skirt political-donation rules.
Nathalie Normandeau issued a curt statement following explosive allegations made last Thursday at the Charbonneau commission, but only revealed on Tuesday when a publication ban at the corruption inquiry was partially lifted.
The former Liberal deputy premier, now out of politics, said she was never influenced by gifts delivered by a onetime construction boss. Star witness Lino Zambito, who was vice-president and co-owner of the now bankrupt Infrabec Construction, told the inquiry that he sent Normandeau 40 red roses on her 40th birthday, as well as tickets to a Celine Dion concert and a Madonna show.
Normandeau attended the August 2008 Dion concert with some of her staff at the Zambito family's corporate box at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Zambito was there, and he testified that at the intermission, another cabinet minister, Michelle Courchesne, showed up with Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt to say hello. Zambito said he didn't have Normandeau's ear for long.
"The moments that I was able to chat with her, it was nothing really serious. There wasn't any particular subject we talked about," he told the inquiry.
Zambito said he subsequently sent Normandeau's office two tickets to a Madonna show that summer, but the minister never used them and gave them to a staffer instead.
"I always approached my job dutifully [and] I won't let anyone question my integrity," Normandeau said Wednesday in her statement.
Zambito also told the inquiry that, before hosting Normandeau in his family's corporate box, the Quebec Liberal Party had been keen to have him organize a fundraising event headlined by Normandeau.
Elections officials watching closely
Elections Quebec says it has been carefully following Lino Zambito's testimony at the Charbonneau commission. The former construction mogul has testified, among other things, that his company paid a 3% cut of every City of Montreal contract it received to Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay's party, and that donors to the Quebec Liberals would sometimes use intermediaries to skirt campaign-finance rules. The provincial electoral authority said it's too early to decide whether a formal investigation is needed.
He said he put together such a dinner in January 2008 at a restaurant his uncle owned in Laval, which raised $110,000 from fellow construction entrepreneurs and engineering firms, largely by pumping donations through front people to circumvent Quebec's electoral contribution limits. Admission cost $5,000 a head, he said, whereas the law at the time limited individual donations to $3,000 for each candidate and party.
In the Liberals' financial return for 2008, the party indicates that the event only raised $77,500, and that tickets cost $1,000.
On Wednesday, Normandeau denied knowing anything about illegal fundraising, saying she participated in numerous events but never had a hand in planning them.
"Like many of my cabinet colleagues, I have been called on to participate in fundraising activities as a guest or speaker. Over the years, I took part in dozens of events of this type in various Quebec regions. But I was never involved in organizing them," the ex-minister's statement said.
Liberals defend financial practices
The provincial Liberals are also firmly defending their reputation in the wake of the latest allegations. The party's interim leader said Wednesday he's spoken with party officials and has been told that illegal fundraising tactics were never used or tolerated.
Jean-Marc Fournier added that he's asked party officials to examine whether new control mechanisms are necessary to ensure donations are clean.
Fournier said the party will also be seeking participant status before the Charbonneau inquiry. He urged that the inquiry be allowed to conduct its work before conclusions are drawn.
None of Zambito's allegations has been proven in court.