Few Canadians know his name, and among political insiders he was known simply as the "Man with the Briefcase."

But Jean Yves Lortie says $15 million to $20 million in cash made its way in and out of his briefcase during his time as a political operative from the late 1950s to his last political campaign in 1993.

"[It was] cash, always cash," said the 80-year-old, detailing how he built a special compartment under his bed to handle the large bundles of bills.

In an extensive interview with CBC's Wendy Mesley, Lortie recently detailed how what he called "funny money" was given to him to help influence political campaigns at every level and of nearly every stripe.

He pulled outrageous stunts, one of which impacted Canadian history by helping Brian Mulroney become prime minister.

Lortie, who now lives in a retirement home in the north end of Montreal, decided to speak publicly for the first time after a religious reawakening.

"I was getting older, got sick and had a heart attack," Lortie told CBC News. "My family was religious and I was not too religious, but it came back to me."

After confessing to a sympathetic priest in the basement of his seniors’ home, he offered to help police in Quebec, who'd begun investigating a widespread corruption network.

The 'go-to guy' for elections

Former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau, whose investigations at the provincial anti-corruption unit led to the Charbonneau commission, said Lortie was a treasure trove and arranged for him to testify behind closed doors to the inquiry.

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Lortie says he came forward with his story because he's seeking redemption and is hoping for change. (CBC)

"I knew the name before I knew the person," said Duchesneau. "He was the go-to guy if you wanted to get elected."

Duchesneau said Lortie essentially taught the commission investigators how the political system "really works."

Lortie grew up in Montreal, one of 12 children. At a young age, he showed his natural inclination toward organizing, selling cookies to raise money for the poor and later becoming president of the Montreal Kinsmen club.

In Laval, a city identified in the Charbonneau commission as ground zero for much of the targeted corruption, Lortie learned the ins and outs of getting those who wanted government contracts to pay for political campaigns.

By the late 1970s, Lortie said he was partying every night.

"It was a good life at that time," said Lortie. "I was organizing and going out."

Often, he was swathed in gold chains and big fur coats, driving a pink Lincoln and sporting a permed hair-do that earned him the nickname the Poodle.

"It was unbelievable," said Odette Desjardins, Lortie's secretary for more than 30 years. "I was like, 'Jean Yves, take it off'."

People were noticing not only his frizzy hair, but also that mayors with his backing got elected. Lortie quickly moved up the ladder from municipal to provincial politics.

Everyone 'was a candidate'

Lortie says that the Parti Québécois asked for his help in a scheme in 1981 to revive the nearly dead third provincial party, Union Nationale, in hopes it would split the federalist vote.

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Jean Yves Lortie and Brian Mulroney at a Conservative dinner that Lortie helped organize. (Courtesy of Jean-Yves Lortie)

Polls at the time put then-premier Rene Levesque’s PQ neck-and-neck with Claude Ryan’s Liberals.

"I charge nothing. They pay me for the expenses," said Lortie. "I like to organize. I didn't need money. I did it for fun."

Lortie says the PQ covered his expenses to run the campaigns of 100 "candidates" for the Union Nationale. He enlisted his wife, employees in his office and even their relatives.

"In Chambly, my nephew was 18 years old, he was a candidate. My husband was a candidate. Nicole, [Lortie's wife], was a candidate," said his former secretary, Desjardins. "My brother was. Everyone in the office was a candidate."

Desjardins says none of them lived in the ridings they were representing.

Levesque won the 1981 election and ended up not needing the support of the revived Union Nationale, which didn’t win any seats.

The former premier's chief of staff at the time, Jean-Roch Boivin, told Radio-Canada that Levesque was approached by Union Nationale leader Roch La Salle, but says as far as he knows the “PQ never gave a cent to the UN.”

"I never got caught," said Lortie. "No journalist found out. Nobody found out."

Building Tory support in Quebec

Lortie, now a political operative in high demand, decided to join a group that wanted Brian Mulroney at the federal Progressive Conservative helm and had begun meeting secretly.

Back then, there was barely a Tory machine in Quebec. Lortie said he organized most of the 75 Quebec ridings, putting a kingpin in each to keep it under control. It gave him a lot of influence.

'I can tell you it was cash bills. I remember that it had impressed me.'- Delegate René Gauthier

He drove around with a senior Tory bag man, who he says collected under the table cash for the Mulroney cause in the province, which Lortie says was typical of all the parties back then.

At the time, there were no limits on corporate donations, but they had to be declared. Lortie says some donations were declared, but most were not and that's why corporations wanted to operate on a cash-only basis.

Lortie says he never used cheques and jokes that he doesn't even know how to write them.

But Lortie's biggest political coup came in 1983, when he became one of the key strategists in the "Dump Clark" movement, which was fuelled in large part by Quebecers.

'Paying all of the expenses'

Joe Clark had suffered several tumultuous years as Progressive Conservative leader. He was elected with a minority government in 1979, which fell nine months later after the Tories lost a budget confidence vote. In the subsequent election, Clark was defeated.

Three years later, a national PC convention was held in Winnipeg.

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Jean Yves Lortie pulled outrageous stunts during his time in politics, one of which impacted Canadian history by helping Brian Mulroney become prime minister. (Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press)

Lortie says he re-enlisted many of the same players from his Union Nationale campaign and flew them to Winnipeg as delegates for the Tory convention. Among those recruited were also friends, family members and, of course, his longtime friend and former secretary, Desjardins.

Lortie says he brought almost half a million dollars to Winnipeg given to him by pro-Mulroney bagmen to cover the expenses of his 226 delegates, including himself.

He says he took about $300,000 in a briefcase, giving credence to his nickname, the Man with the Briefcase.

"I was paying all of the expenses," said Lortie. "The planes, the lunch, the hotel, buses."

Lortie says he divvied up an additional $150,000 among two assistants to spread the load. One of them, Gabriel Desjardins, told CBC he took the briefcase but never looked inside.  

Another of Lortie’s Mulroney delegates, René Gauthier, told CBC he saw big wads of bills in Lortie’s briefcase.

"I can tell you it was cash bills,” said Gauthier. “I remember that it had impressed me."

To prevent his group of delegates from becoming influenced by the Clark crew, Lortie says he kept them all together at a highway hotel out near the airport.

The plan was to sneak delegates into the convention at the last moment to vote for a leadership review. Clark had the support of two-thirds of the delegates but Lortie's recruits helped tip the vote enough for Clark to call for a leadership race.

At the leadership convention six months later in Ottawa, Mulroney won.

Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, appointed by Mulroney to the Red Chamber in 1993, said Lortie was in charge of a lot of the pro-Mulroney Quebec delegates, but denies seeing a briefcase full of cash.

Nolin says his claims sound like an exaggeration and insists any money spent would've followed the rules.

Schreiber questions resurface

'In a way, he is a good citizen who has done bad.'- Jacques Duchesneau, former Montreal police chief

Party mutinies happen all the time. What made this one so notorious were the rumours of foreign money behind the “Dump Clark” movement, including that a German arms broker had been a big donor.

Karlheinz Schreiber was a lobbyist for Airbus, which later sold the Mulroney government almost $2-billion worth of jets to Air Canada.

For years, Mulroney denied ever taking any money from Schreiber, and once stated under oath that he never "had any dealings" with the lobbyist. But in 2007, he admitted that a decade after the Winnipeg convention that Schreiber gave him $225,000 in cash ​

Schreiber has never clearly stated how much money he donated to the “Dump Clark” movement, once admitting to $25,000 and another time to $50,000. He's also hinted it could be much more.

There's no evidence Mulroney knew about any under-the-table donations for the Winnipeg convention. Mulroney has pointed to other times when Schreiber said he had no role at all.

Asked about Lortie’s claims, including the under-the-table cash, a spokesperson for the former prime minister said there would be no comment on Mulroney's behalf.

In a wide-ranging interview with Radio-Canada last year, Mulroney identified Lortie as the party's Quebec organizer but scoffed at the story of chartered planes arriving in Winnipeg in the middle of the night, deriding it as "folklore."

Lortie says Mulroney tried to create distance from him after the convention.

"They were frank with me [and] said, 'Maybe you have to be more in the back room'," said Lortie.

Lortie has come forward with his confession now seeking redemption and hoping for change.

"He just wanted to say, 'Things that I did, I am not happy about it and it is about time that society changes the way we elect people'," said Duchesneau. "So in a way he is a good citizen who has done bad."

Lortie says his confession is sincere.

"If it helps, I'm happy," he said. "I cannot do much more.”