Quebec opposition parties slam anti-corruption unit after allegations media leaks came from top brass

The Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI) believed Robert Lafrenière, the former commissioner, and other senior brass at the anti-corruption squad arranged a series of leaks that halted the trial of former Liberal minister Nathalie Normandeau, according to the ruling by Superior Court Judge André Perreault. 

Revelations surfaced in a recently unredacted court ruling

Former UPAC Commissioner Robert Lafrenière is believed by Quebec's police watchdog to have orchestrated a series of media leaks that halted justice proceedings against a former cabinet minister. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

In another blow to the reputation of Quebec's anti-corruption unit, its former head was accused of orchestrating media leaks in recently unredacted court documents.

The revelations came this week as parts of a court ruling once under a publication ban became public. The document revealed the province's police watchdog believed the unit's former commissioner orchestrated media leaks that derailed legal proceedings against a former Liberal cabinet minister.

The Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI) believed Robert Lafrenière, the former commissioner, and other senior brass at the anti-corruption squad arranged a series of leaks that halted the trial of former Liberal minister Nathalie Normandeau, according to the ruling by Superior Court Judge André Perreault. 

The BEI's investigation, dubbed "Oath," found that UPAC's own investigation into the leaks was an operation to cover its tracks and send prosecutors on false leads. The police watchdog said Lafrenière's motive behind leaking information to the media about UPAC's investigations was to make the nascent unit and his leadership look good.

He wanted it to become its own police force without having to "borrow" investigators from Quebec provincial police and various municipal police services, according to the description of the BEI's findings in the ruling. UPAC became an independent police unit in February 2018. 

Lafrenière, who quit UPAC the day of the provincial elections that fall, vigorously denied the allegations in an interview with Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête.

"My reputation is being attacked by a hypothesis," he said. "I never shared any kind of document with anyone." 

Lafrenière said he chose to resign on election day because it seemed like a neutral moment to do so.

Former Quebec deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau and her five co-accused were granted a stay of proceedings in 2020. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Normandeau and five others were accused of conspiracy, fraud and breach of trust, but were ultimately granted a stay of proceedings because of delays caused by UPAC media leaks. 

Normandeau, who was Quebec's deputy premier under Jean Charest from 2007 to 2011, was arrested in 2018 in connection to the awarding of a contract to build a water-treatment plant in Boisbriand, Que.

Perreault wrote in his decision, which was published Sept. 25, 2020, that the exoneration of Normandeau and the five co-accused did not absolve them of guilt. 

UPAC should "have known that the discovery of leaks" would initiate a police investigation into those leaks and "inevitably delay court proceedings," Perreault wrote. 

'Political police force'

Tuesday, opposition parties took turns criticizing the police force for its latest scandal. Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade agreed with a reporter's assertion that the anti-corruption unit has turned into a "political police force.''

"It's extremely problematic everything that we have read in relation to the UPAC," Anglade said in Quebec City.

"What's clear is that inside UPAC there really are issues, and you can't sit in your living room today and watch this and think that (you) have confidence in this institution."

The watchdog, the judge said, had linked 19 leaks to UPAC brass, including six to Lafrenière. The BEI investigation is ongoing, and at the time ruling was rendered in 2020, lead investigator Michel Doyon was still to meet with 35 witnesses.

Aside from Normandeau, ex-premier Jean Charest — now a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada — was the target of leaks.

Details of UPAC's investigation into alleged illegal party financing involving the Quebec Liberal Party under his leadership were distributed to journalists. That investigation has been closed and no charges were laid.

Aside from this latest scandal, UPAC has been criticized for not building cases leading to successful prosecutions. A government report in 2019 found it lacked officers with the necessary skills to conduct complex investigations into financial crimes.

Also Tuesday, Québec Solidaire's Manon Massé said it was time for UPAC to demonstrate it could do what it was mandated to do. "UPAC has not demonstrated that it could meet its responsibilities, to assure the people of Quebec that corruption is hunted down and is penalized,'' Massé said.

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said it was time for UPAC to be scrapped altogether.

"We have an issue of trust now because it says that for years all this was theatre," St-Pierre Plamondon said. "So, how can you continue with that organization if, culturally speaking, the organization as a whole was in a business of theatre. You can't trust them."

Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault, speaking in Rimouski, Que., reiterated her confidence in the institution, noting that much has changed since the Coalition Avenir Québec came to power and the new head of the unit, Frédérick Gaudreau, was elected by the legislature.

"Let UPAC do its work," Guilbault said.

With files from Canadian Press