Distrusted by SQ, embarrassed by leaks, UPAC launched hunt for moles before arresting Liberal MNA

With its reputation on the line, UPAC launched an elaborate investigation last year into leaked documents. But the findings revealed infighting and distrust of its own operations.

Unsealed court document reveals details of anti-corruption unit’s investigation into Guy Ouellette

The arrest of Liberal MNA Guy Ouellette brought further scrutiny on Quebec's anti-corruption unit, UPAC. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

As details from its most sensitive investigations were being broadcast on prime time last year, Quebec's anti-corruption unit was conducting an elaborate investigation to stop the leaks.

The unit — known by its French acronym UPAC — was created in 2011 to restore public trust following years of corruption scandals. But the leaks were undermining its own reputation as a bulwark of law-and-order.

It was particularly embarrassed when classified documents of its investigation into former premier Jean Charest were made public in April.

Privately, politicians were expressing concerns about the pace of the unit's inquiries, and its employees were complaining about their managers. 

Even the head of the Sûreté du Québec had come to view the unit suspiciously. Martin Prud'homme reportedly wondered if his own comments to investigators about the leaks would find their way onto the nightly news.

On Thursday, a Quebec court judge unsealed an affidavit by a UPAC inspector that details the unit's efforts to uncover who was leaking classified information to the media.

The affidavit accompanies an application for a search warrant. Its claims have not been tested in open court.

The investigation eventually identified four suspects: two allegedly disgruntled employees, a convicted fraudster and a crusading provincial politician.

But in moving against the politician — Liberal MNA Guy Ouellette — UPAC only invited further criticism. It arrested Ouellette in a sting operation last October, then failed to charge him.

The front page of the Journal de Québec announcing its scoop on UPAC's investigation into former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Liberal fundraiser Marc Bibeau.

Members of the provincial legislature, including the speaker of the National Assembly, questioned whether Ouellette's arrest was overreach by the unit. They also worried about the precedent UPAC was setting by seizing material meant to be protected by parliamentary privilege.

The document represents the most detailed account yet of why Ouellette was arrested. It also sketches the motives that UPAC investigators believe prompted the leaks in the first place and the damage they did to its reputation.

Now, as the National Assembly debates whether to grant new wide-ranging powers to UPAC, the unit is struggling to restore its image in the eyes of the public.

Pierre, Quebec's deepthroat

In the spring of 2016, a number of Quebec journalists reported having been contacted by someone they dubbed "Pierre."

The source was offering to share sensitive information about UPAC's investigation into Nathalie Normandeau, the former Liberal deputy premier who had been arrested that March. Few bit, fearing it was an attempt to sabotage the trial.

A year later, journalists from TVA and the Journal de Montréal published a series of attention-grabbing scoops based on UPAC documents, including that Charest himself was the subject of an investigation (Charest has not been charged).

The affidavit, which is part of a search warrant application, claims that Pierre is in fact Richard Despaties, a retired SQ officer who worked as an analyst for UPAC until he was dismissed in October of 2016.

It is alleged that he is in possession of documents about the Charest case.

Along with feeding information to journalists, the affidavit alleges Despaties was also feeding information to Lino Zambito, a former construction boss and provincial Liberal organizer who pleaded guilty in 2015 to fraud and corruption charges.

Former construction boss Lino Zambito, second from left, testified in court proceedings last month under heavy security. (Radio-Canada)

Zambito avoided jail time, partly due to the extensive cooperation he offered investigators. 

At UPAC, Despaties worked alongside Stéphane Bonhomme, an SQ officer who was assigned to the unit.

The affidavit extensively details the timing of text messages and phone conversations between the two. It also says Bonhomme accessed UPAC files, details from which later appeared in the media.

The investigation also claims that Bonhomme was feeding Despaties information about their superiors at UPAC.

Despaties is said to have used that information to file complaints alleging senior UPAC officials were cheating the system to get more paid vacation.

Earlier this week, a report detailing psychological harassment within UPAC was tabled in the National Assembly. It said SQ officers attached to the unit had complained of poorly defined roles, little planning, favouritism and a climate of anxiety.

Leaks feared by SQ chief

The affidavit also attempts to establish links between Ouellette, a one-time SQ investigator who became a Liberal MNA in 2007, and two UPAC employees.

It alleges that he "received or tried to receive information from police officers or UPAC members in order to transmit them to the media."

Included are details about dozens of Ouellette's phone conversations in 2016 and 2017. Information about who Ouellette was speaking with is redacted. Elsewhere, the document notes that Ouellette knew Despaties from their days in the SQ.

Until his arrest, Ouellette headed the legislative committee that is responsible for UPAC and oversees its funding.

As investigators zeroed in on Ouellette as a suspect, a meeting was arranged with Martin Prud'homme, then head of the SQ. Prud'homme, the document notes, is an old friend of Ouellette's.

For a number of reasons, including potential conflict of interest, it was decided that Prud'homme should be interviewed by the RCMP.

When the Mounties arrived at Prud'homme's office at SQ headquarters in September, they informed him it was RCMP protocol to record the interview.

'Martin Prud'homme has always believed that Guy Ouellette is an honest police officer and an honest man,' the affidavit reads. (CBC)

Prud'homme, however, refused. He told the Mounties that if he were to give a formal statement it would be on "the TVA news at 6 p.m.," according to the affidavit.

"There is a big problem of leaks at UPAC and at the Sûreté du Québec," Prud'homme is reported as saying.

Prud'homme, who is currently the interim chief of the Montreal police, allegedly believed the leaks were part of an attempt to discredit UPAC. "There is a big war at UPAC. Someone is trying to make it look bad."

He also said he would support pulling his SQ officers from the anti-corruption unit and wished it had more autonomy.

As for Ouellette, Prud'homme told the Mounties the MNA had occasionally complained to him that UPAC wasn't proactive enough. But he went on to say that Ouellette never approached him for information.

"Martin Prud'homme has always believed that Guy Ouellette is an honest police officer and an honest man," the affidavit reads.

Denials, under oath

Despite Prud'homme's endorsement, the UPAC investigation into Ouellette continued. On Oct. 19, they obtained a warrant allowing them to seize Despaties's cellphone to text Ouellette and entice him into picking up a bag of classified documents.

The now-infamous sting operation was carried out nearly a week later. Ouellette was arrested without a warrant at a Tim Hortons in a small town outside Quebec City.

He was released after several hours and has not been charged. Last month, Ouellette was called to testify at a hearing into a stay of proceedings request by lawyers representing Normandeau and her co-accused.

They argued that the leak of UPAC documents has prejudiced their clients' right to a fair trial.

UPAC commissioner Robert Lafrenière has faced criticism over complaints about the work environment at the anti-environment unit. (CBC)

Ouellette denied, under oath, having leaked documents to journalists. He also said infighting at UPAC was hurting its performance. 

"To get optimal results, the work environment wasn't ideal," he told the court.

Zambito, Bonhomme and Despaties also testified at the hearing. All three also denied, under oath, leaking documents to the media.

In his testimony, Despaties suggested the general level of workplace dissatisfaction at UPAC could have led to employees leaking sensitive information.

"You're pushed aside, suspended or paid to shut up," he said.