Bernier's ex-girlfriend broke lobbying code, watchdog finds

Julie Couillard, the former girlfriend of cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, lobbied a previous boyfriend in the public works minister's office on behalf of a Quebec real estate firm, the federal lobbying watchdog has found.

Julie Couillard contacted public works minister's adviser on behalf of Quebec real estate firm

Julie Couillard, the former girlfriend of cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, engaged in unregistered lobbying on behalf of a Quebec real estate firm, the federal lobbying watchdog has found.

Julie Couillard arrives with her then boyfriend, Maxime Bernier, for his cabinet swearing-in ceremony in August 2007. Bernier later resigned as foreign affairs minister after leaving classified documents at Couillard's house. ((Paul Chiasson/CP))

Karen Shepherd, Canada's lobbying commissioner, picked up an investigation started by the previous registrar of lobbyists when her office was created in July 2008.

Couillard had been in the headlines that spring after the former foreign affairs minister left classified briefing documents at her house after an overnight stay. Bernier, now the minister of state for small business and tourism, was forced to resign as a result of the security breach.

As that controversy unfolded, media reports surfaced in June that Couillard had tried to influence another previous romantic acquaintance, Bernard Côté, who was a former policy adviser to then Public Works Minister Michael Fortier.

In 2007, Couillard was working to win a federal government contract from the Public Works Department for a 200,000-square-foot development project in the Quebec City area.  

Côté lost his job when his relationship with Couillard became public.

Couillard paid $50K for consultancy work

Couillard, who is registered as a real estate agent, signed a contract to be affiliated with Groupe Immobilier Kevlar Inc., a brokerage firm that provides large-scale industrial, residential and commercial real estate services. Kevlar was interested in bidding for the lease.

Kevlar and Couillard's company, ITEK Global Solutions Inc., had a five-month consultancy contract for Couillard to work on Kevlar's bid. Couillard was paid over $50,000 for her work as a consultant.

They also signed a commission agreement to establish Couillard's payment for representing Kevlar if the bid to win the government lease was successful. The commission agreement was terminated when Kevlar ended its affiliation with Couillard in June 2008.

Shepherd's office suspended its investigation in August when the RCMP began investigating Couillard's activities, including a potential breach of the Lobbying Act.

When the RCMP decided not to press charges in 2010, the lobbying commissioner's office resumed its probe into alleged violations of the Lobbyists Code of Conduct.

Couillard 'didn't regard herself as a lobbyist'

The lobbying commissioner's investigation confirmed that Couillard and Côté spoke "primarily by telephone" about Kevlar's interest in submitting a proposal to the Public Works Department for the lease.

However, she did not file any returns as a consultant lobbyist, Shepherd's investigation found.

The Lobbyists Registration Act required Couillard to register any meetings or other contacts she had with ministers and other public office holders (such as political advisers) about this contract. 

In her response to the investigation's findings, Couillard said through her lawyer that she "never considered that she was subject to the Lobbyists Registration Act, as she did not regard herself as a lobbyist and did not consider that she had a duty to comply with the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct." 

She also said that "it was never her intention to mislead her clients, the public or public office holders. It was also not her intention to act as a lobbyist."

Couillard believed Côté "did not have decision-making authority in relation to the contract," the commissioner's report says. She was trying to get more information about the contract and the process for awarding it, Couillard argued, and her communications with Mr. Côté "should be characterized as an effort to ensure that Kevlar's proposal was complete and up to date."

Shepherd's office disagreed, finding Couillard did not appropriately identify herself as a lobbyist to either the public works minister's office or her client, Kevlar.

The watchdog's conclusions find Couillard breached the professional standards of the code of conflict. But there are no fines or jail penalties for violations of the lobbyists' code.

Questions about Couillard's violations in Tuesday's question period were answered by Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who emphasized that this investigation concerned a "private citizen."

"The rules are quite strict," Clement said, and the government "expects them to be followed."

Clement pointed to recent changes made by the Harper government, including expanding the list of individuals covered by the Lobbying Act. "We are here on the side of accountability," he said.