Cheque for $25K was contribution to legal fees, not gift, says Denis Coderre

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre says in retrospect, perhaps he should have declared the cheque from Jean Rizzuto which went to help pay his legal fees in a defamation suit over the French language. Both he and Rizzuto deny any possible conflict of interest.

Projet Montréal calls it apparent conflict of interest; Jean Rizzuto says cheque was to defend French language

Denis Coderre never officially declared having received a cheque for $25,000 to the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner because he considered it to be a contribution, not a gift. (CBC)

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said he considers a $25,000 cheque he received from a friend, who is also a Liberal Party organizer, as a contribution, not a gift.

Coderre told CBC Montreal's Daybreak he received the cheque in 2012, while he was still a Liberal MP, from friend and businessman Jean Rizzuto.

Rizzuto is a Liberal organizer who worked for Coderre, and they have known each other for more than 30 years, Coderre said.

The money was put toward legal fees in a defamation lawsuit launched by Canadian hockey player Shane Doan, launched after Coderre accused Doan of making an ethnic slur against francophones. 

Coderre said he never officially declared having received the cheque to the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.

"I can't redo the past, but for me it wasn't a gift; it was someone who wanted to contribute because he supported my cause," he told Radio-Canada's Gravel le matin.

Coderre said in hindsight, perhaps he should have declared the cheque, but he didn't because, since it was a private matter that didn't involve public funds, he didn't think he had to. 

The 2009 conflict of interest code for MPs that was in effect when Coderre received the money would seem to suggest the former MP should have declared it.

A benefit is defined as "an amount of money if there is no obligation to repay it," and any gifts or benefits over $500 are to be declared within 60 days, along with a description of the circumstances under which they were given.

The office of Ottawa's Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner said at this point it can't determine whether Coderre should have declared the sum because it doesn't have enough information, and it has no power to investigate since he is no longer an MP. 

Infection clouded memory, Coderre contends

According to the Journal de Montréal, when asked about the cheque three weeks ago, Coderre denied having ever received it.

He now says the reporters called him while he was dealing with a prostate infection and that he was medicated and doesn't remember what he told them when they called.

Quebec's anti-corruption unit (UPAC) said in a statement that it is not investigating but has handed information over to the RCMP. The RCMP would not comment.

Coderre said he hasn't been contacted by police.

Suit and countersuit

Coderre's legal problems date back to the 2006 federal election, when the then-MP demanded Doan be barred from Canada's team for the Turin Winter Olympics, accusing the Phoenix Coyotes forward of trash-talking a francophone official at a game in Montreal on Dec. 13, 2005.

The league cleared Doan of wrongdoing, and Doan sued Coderre for $250,000. Coderre countersued.
Shane Doan, a Canadian hockey player and forward with the Arizona Coyotes, and Denis Coderre settled their legal dispute in 2010. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

They reached an out-of-court settlement in 2010.

Coderre received the cheque two years later, in 2012. He said two weeks after he deposited the cheque, he wrote his lawyers' firm a cheque for the same amount.

Coderre's reaction 'an insult,' opposition says

Valérie Plante, leader of the official ​opposition at city hall, said Coderre's excuses were weak, especially for an elected official.
Projet Montréal leader says Denis Coderre is trying to 'minimize' his acceptance of a $25,000 cheque, calling his explanations 'very weak excuses for an elected official.' (Thomas Cobbett Labonté/CBC)

Plante also quipped that memory loss isn't a symptom of a prostate infection.

She said Coderre is downplaying a serious situation.

"I find it's an insult, even, to Montrealers who are worried about questions about possible corruption and, with everything that's happened, trying to minimize this, I find it's a lack of respect toward the population," she said.

Plante said the situation amounts to an apparent conflict of interest, and if the mayor has nothing to hide, he should provide the bill from his lawyers, the settlement reached with Doan and a copy of the cheque.

She pointed out it's unclear why the case was settled in 2010, but the cheque was only sent two years later.

No conflict, Rizzuto says

Coderre said he never awarded any contracts to Rizzuto at the federal level nor at the municipal level.

Rizzuto has declined interviews, however, a spokesperson for the Laval businessman said the cheque is the only one he ever gave to Coderre, and it was to defend the French language — a cause close to his heart and that of his brother, the late Senator Pietro Rizzuto.

Through his spokesperson, he denied any suggestion that he could have put Coderre in a conflict of interest, telling Radio-Canada that he has made many donations to the federal Liberals over the years, however, as a resident of Laval, he has never donated to Coderre's municipal party. 

He said he has no contracts with the City of Montreal, although he does have a 20-year commercial contract with Montreal's public transit agency, the STM, that dates back to 2004.

With files from Jaela Bernstien, CBC's Daybreak, Radio-Canada's Gravel le matin