Nathalie Normandeau used as scapegoat by head of UPAC, Lino Zambito testifies

Former construction boss Lino Zambito says the arrest of the former deputy premier was precipitated by the head of Quebec's anti-corruption unit, Robert Lafrenière, because he was about to lose his job.

Former construction boss is witness in request for stay of proceedings by ex-deputy premier, her 5 co-accused

Former construction boss Lino Zambito, second from left, arrived at the Quebec City courthouse Wednesday morning under heavy security escort. (Radio-Canada)

Former construction boss Lino Zambito says Nathalie Normandeau's arrest was precipitated by the head of Quebec's anti-corruption unit (UPAC), Robert Lafrenière, because he was about to lose his job.

Defence lawyers called Zambito to testify on Wednesday as part of their request for a stay of proceedings in the charges laid against the former Liberal deputy premier and her five co-accused.

The lawyers argue evidence disclosed to the media in past years has made it impossible for their clients to get a fair trial.

Zambito was one of the star witnesses during the Charbonneau commission, which looked into illegal funding of political parties linked to the construction world.

He said UPAC investigators met him in December 2015, and they seemed to be in a hurry to get information which could link people to collusion schemes.
Nathalie Normandeau arrives at the Quebec City courthouse Monday. (Radio-Canada)

"I said, 'You're in a rush because you need a big catch to renew your boss's mandate,'" Zambito explained. He told the court that the investigators' body language confirmed his suspicion.

Three months after the encounter, Normandeau was arrested, along with her former chief of staff, Bruno Lortie, former Liberal cabinet minister and fundraiser Marc-Yvan Côté, two former Parti Québécois staffers and several figures associated with the engineering firm Roche (now known as Norda Stelo).

The six are​ facing a slew of corruption-related charges in relation to a contract awarded for a water treatment plant in Boisbriand, Que.

'Gallant was too honest'

Zambito said Lafrenière's mandate was renewed shortly after the arrest.

He said this happened despite information he had heard suggesting the Liberal cabinet wanted to appoint Denis Gallant, a star lawyer with the Charbonneau commission who was later appointed as Montreal's inspector general.

"Gallant was too honest and too dangerous for the Liberals," said Zambito, suggesting he was "on the short list" for the job.

Zambito said he wasn't 100 per cent sure but thought that information came to him from Guy Ouellette, a high-profile police officer and Liberal MNA who was himself arrested by UPAC in Oct. 2017 but never charged.

Ouellette is expected to testify Thursday.

Leaks to media

Zambito also denied being the source of leaks to Quebec media between 2012 and 2017 regarding corruption and collusion allegations against members of the Liberal Party of Quebec.

When asked by Marc-Yvan Côté's defence lawyer, Jacques Larochelle, if he knew where the leaks had come from, Zambito said "absolutely not."

Zambito fielded questions about a book he published in 2016 in which he described having been told about "damaging files" against the Liberals.
Marc-Yvan Côté, who served as Liberal MNA for 14 years, was banned for life from the federal Liberal Party after involvement in the sponsorship scandal. (Radio-Canada)

The main investigator in UPAC's Project Joug, which led to the arrests, also testified Wednesday.

Mathieu Venne said he believes Normandeau and Côté were unfairly targeted and said he was surprised by the media hype and the public scrutiny that followed their arrests.

"I felt they didn't deserve that," he said, adding they were judged by the public before having a fair trial.

Venne explained that Project Joug was initially launched because of allegations against disgraced party fundraiser Côté, who was said to be involved in financing for former MNA Sam Hamad.

Venne said he was floored when he watched Radio-Canada's Enquête report, featuring emails exchanged between Côté and Hamad.

Quebec's ethics commissioner later ruled that Hamad shouldn't be sanctioned for his actions but said he had failed to uphold the values of the National Assembly in his relations with Côté.

When Larochelle asked him if he knew who had leaked the documents, Venne said he first thought it was Côté, who could have wanted to cause a mistrial.

Venne said he has since changed his mind.

"Since Oct. 25, I have my doubts," he said, acknowledging that date corresponded with the day of Ouellette's arrest.

In his request for a stay of proceedings for his client, Larochelle also requested that two journalists be called to testify to disclose their sources for stories which included UPAC files.

Radio-Canada's Marie-Maude Denis and l'Actualité's Louis Lacroix are challenging the request.

With files from Yannick Bergeron