Jean Charest unloads on Quebec's anti-corruption unit as he opts out of Tory leadership race

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest cast doubt on the reliability of information gathered by UPAC investigators and defended a friend suspected of defrauding the government.

As he opts not to run for Conservative leadership, former premier unloads on UPAC

Former premier Jean Charest has filed a lawsuit against the Quebec government. (Ivanhoe Demers/Radio-Canada)

Former Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest has sought to undermine the credibility of an ongoing corruption investigation into his political career, slamming the provincial anti-corruption unit as he announced he won't be running for the federal Conservative leadership.

In an interview Tuesday with Radio-Canada, Charest accused Quebec's anti-corruption unit (UPAC) of conducting a "fishing expedition."

He also cast doubt on the reliability of information gathered by UPAC investigators and defended a friend suspected of defrauding the government.

It is the first time since leaving office in 2012 that Charest has directly addressed allegations that engineering and construction companies in Quebec were able to secure government contracts by donating to the Quebec Liberal Party.

After Charest had stepped down, a public inquiry heard evidence that during his time as premier, the provincial Liberals benefited from millions in illegal donations.

The anti-corruption unit, which Charest's government created in 2011, subsequently opened an investigation into Liberal fundraising practices. Media reports suggested Charest was a key figure in that investigation.

In his comments Tuesday, Charest confirmed he'd been singled out by UPAC. He said investigators had questioned a wide circle of his contacts, including former political organizers from as far back as the early 1980s.

"What do you call it when, suddenly, you begin an investigation and you interrogate 300 people about someone's life? Is that not called a fishing expedition?" asked Charest.

The investigation has been going on for six years, and no one has yet been charged. It was "common sense," he said, to ask for the investigation to end.

Charest announced in the interview with Radio-Canada that he is not running for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Charest's demand was echoed by the party's current house leader, Marc Tanguay. "We're asking UPAC, really, to close this investigation one way or another," Tanguay said Wednesday. "It doesn't make sense that it's been six years."

The government, though, scoffed at Tanguay's remarks. "It's very audacious for a Liberal MNA to make that request," said Andrée Laforest, the interim public security minister. 

"We're going to let the investigation follow its course."

MNAs for Québec Solidaire and the Parti Québécois made similar comments. "Me, I'll believe UPAC," said Manon Massé, parliamentary leader of QS.

On Wednesday afternoon, UPAC issued a statement saying it was important that the anti-corruption unit "be able to make its operational decisions with complete independence."

The head of UPAC, Frédérick Gaudreau, said in the statement that he understood the "impatience" for answers, and promised to inform the public when the investigation was completed.

Tanguay tweeted later to say he respected UPAC's independence. 

'I don't believe one word' about Bibeau: Charest

Though Tuesday's interview with Radio-Canada began with Charest's announcement about the Conservative leadership, the questions focused on the UPAC investigation and the allegations of wrongdoing that hounded his goverment. 

Charest said his government wasn't aware that firms were reimbursing employees to get around political fundraising laws in Quebec that prohibit companies from making donations.

When his government learned about the reimbursement scheme, which benefited other provincial parties as well, Charest said he immediately tightened the Quebec Liberal Party's fundraising rules.

Many of these allegations resurfaced last week when Marc Bibeau — a former Liberal fundraiser and close friend of Charest's — lost a bid to block the publication of UPAC affidavits. 

The affidavits were filed in support of search warrant applications — part of UPAC's investigation into Bibeau. 

They contained summaries of police interviews with several witnesses, many of whom were high-ranking executives at engineering companies who allegedly said they felt pressured by Bibeau to illegally donate to the Liberals. 

In one summary, a witness said Bibeau went around with a business card embossed with a Quebec government logo, even though he had no position within the government.

The Charbonneau commission, led by after Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau, right, investigated corruption within Quebec's construction industry. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"I don't believe it. I don't believe one word," Charest of the allegations against Bibeau.

He said that information in UPAC affidavits had been wrong in the past. He also raised the various governance problems that have checkered the anti-corruption unit's reputation in recent years.

"Do I need to remind you that UPAC is currently under investigation?" Charest said, referring to its bungled arrest of a sitting MNA in 2017.

No role in the decision not to run for leadership

Though the information contained in the affidavits published last week wasn't new — much of it was initially heard during the public inquiry into corruption known as the Charbonneau commission — it reignited debate in Quebec about Charest's ethics.

Several columnists questioned why he would want to re-enter the political fray given the questions raised by the open UPAC investigation. 

"What could be going on in Jean Charest's head?" began one recent column in the Journal de Montréal.

"Think about it carefully," counselled a columnist at La Presse.

In Tuesday's interview, Charest said the publication of the documents last week played no part in his decision not to run for the Conservative leadership.

"All this was already in the public domain," the former premier said. "I would never have evoked the possibility of becoming a candidate if I felt for one instant that something like this would lead to criminal charges or would have hindered me."

Charest said he opted not to run because, among other things, he felt the party had changed too much since he led the Progressive Conservatives, from 1993 to 1998.