Charest orders inquiry into judge nominations

Quebec Premier Jean Charest has ordered a public inquiry into how the province selects its judges amid allegations of Liberal Party influence on the nomination process.

Premier responds to former justice minister's allegations of party influence

Premier Jean Charest has ordered a public inquiry into Quebec's process of selecting judges. 

Charest launched the probe Tuesday after former justice minister Marc Bellemare alleged he was pressured to name certain judges to the bench based on the recommendations of major Liberal Party fundraisers.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest has ordered an inquiry into the judicial nomination process amid allegations that Liberal fundraisers influenced the selection of judges. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))

"Mr. Bellemare has made allegations about the nomination of judges that are serious," Charest said at a news conference.

Charest said the inquiry "will get to the bottom" of the accusations.

"As premier of Quebec, I think it's important that we be able to address this issue of the integrity of the justice system," he said.   

A person will be appointed to head the inquiry on Wednesday, Charest said.

Bellemare, who served as Charest's justice minister in 2003 and 2004, told Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête that he wouldn't name the people involved in the controversy but said Charest was aware of the issue.

Charest has vehemently denied the allegations, calling them "lies" and saying Bellemare never said anything to him about the subject.

Deputy Premier Nathalie Normandeau said Bellemare's accusations were "impossible." She said Tuesday that the selection of judges involves a committee that includes lawyers and members of the public and does not rely solely on the justice minister.

Charest also said that throughout the last seven years of Liberal government in Quebec, he's only received positive feedback about the judges who have been appointed.

Marc Bellemare, seen here in 2004, served as Charest's justice minister.

Bellemare also alleged that he witnessed someone tied to the construction industry giving large sums of cash to a Liberal Party official on two occasions.

The former justice minister didn't say how much money changed hands or name who had been involved.

Under Quebec law, political donations to parties are capped at $3,000 per person per year.

Bellemare told  Enquête  he had complained to the premier about the incidents and told him he thought they were "irregular" and "dangerous."

Opposition leader "astonished"

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois said she was "astonished" to hear Bellemare's statements.

"But I have to accept what he said, because I know he knows exactly what the laws are," she said Tuesday.

Marois is calling for retired justice John Gomery, who headed the probe into the federal sponsorship scandal, to lead a broader inquiry that looks into Bellemare's allegations of Liberal Party kickbacks.

The Charest government had suggested there is no need for such an inquiry since a provincial police investigation, dubbed Opération Marteau (French for hammer), is already examining allegations of corruption and collusion in the construction industry.

Charest, who was returning from a political conference in Mississippi when the new allegations broke Monday, has denied all the accusations and said he would sue Bellemare if he doesn't retract his comments.

Bellemare said Tuesday he would not take back his statements.