Charest reacts to report of cancelled surveillance operation
A visibly angry Jean Charest reacted to an inflammatory report, aired in the heat of the Quebec election campaign Wednesday, on his ties to a player in the construction industry.
Allegations of criminal corruption in the industry, and political parties' links to it, are among the key issues in the Sept. 4 election and the piece by the French-language CBC pushed them back to the forefront.
An investigative report by Radio-Canada said the provincial police stopped tailing a construction-union official in 2009 after that man had a chat with Charest.
The Liberal premier, seeking re-election, expressed outrage that anyone who viewed the report might draw a conclusion that he had something to do with the police decision. He said all he did was exchange brief pleasantries at a public event.
"Never, never, never did I intervene. Never," Charest told reporters outside his campaign bus.
"Since I have been premier of Quebec I have never been aware of a police investigation, nor have I intervened."
Charest also questioned the fairness of the report and the ethics of choosing to run it in the middle of an election campaign.
He even raised ominous suggestions of some political motivation: "Ask the question. Why is it coming out today? One week into an election campaign. For something that happened in 2009 and, suddenly, it's in the news today."
The Radio-Canada report said that, three years ago, police were tracking the movements of Eddy Brandone, a onetime treasurer at the FTQ-Construction union.
In March 2009, Radio-Canada had reported on a condo project financed improperly with union money, in which units were purchased by about a dozen people with supposed Mafia ties while half the units went to union officials and their relatives.
Brandone was mentioned in that report, one of the first news items to trigger the wave of construction scandals that are now the subject of a public inquiry.
One day after the report aired, on March 6, Brandone went to a public event the premier was attending -- an Inuit conference at which federal and provincial ministers were present. Radio-Canada said the police tracking was later stopped.
The report did not say when or why the procedure changed, or who might have ordered the so-called "blackout."
It quoted multiple confidential police sources, all confirming the tracking was cancelled and offering a variety of opinions on what happened. One source said there's an unwritten rule that when an investigation gets too close to the government, the provincial police back down.
Provincial police spokespeople told Radio-Canada there was no political interference in the Brandone operation. Charest, for his part, sent a letter to Radio-Canada through a spokesman saying there was nothing illicit about the chat with Brandone.
Charest went farther in the scrum with reporters later Wednesday.
He said he has known Brandone since 1993, when he supported his first bid for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative party and later through his participation at provincial Liberal events.
He said he remembers Brandone because he always introduces himself at events as a "union" official -- a rare distinction at Quebec Liberal gatherings, given that unions tend not to support that party. But Charest said he had "no recollection" of ever having had "a conversation of substance" with the man.
Charest condemned Radio-Canada for airing the report. He said people often discuss the ethics of politicians, but they should also scrutinize journalists' ethics.
"The insinuation made by Radio-Canada is clear," Charest snapped back, when a reporter asked why he was questioning the ethics of the journalists.
"You know the insinuation. They're trying to build a link between the fact that I bumped into a guy that day and the fact that it seems -- I say 'it seems,' because I don't know -- that a tail was cancelled."
It is not the first time in this campaign that the Liberals have taken shots at Radio-Canada.
The Liberals fumed about alleged bias when a Quebec City bureau chief for the news organization, in the second such case in five years, recently announced plans to run for the Parti Quebecois. Several other ex-employees are involved with different parties, as organizers or candidates, including journalist-turned-Liberal cabinet minister Christine St-Pierre.
The leader of the Parti Quebecois called it abnormal that a police operation would be abruptly cancelled.
"It's very worrisome," said PQ Leader Pauline Marois, in comments made before Charest spoke publicly.
"I think Mr. Charest must absolutely explain his links with Eddy Brandone. How long has he had these ties for? What exactly are we hearing? He's the premier of Quebec; he has a duty to explain the nature of these ties and confirm or deny what we're hearing."
In the hidden-camera conversation with Radio-Canada, Brandone said he had met Charest in 1993 during his federal PC bid. The report said they were introduced by Tony Tomassi, a federal organizer at the time and later a Charest provincial minister who had to quit in an ethics scandal for which he now faces criminal charges. Brandone said the March 2009 chat lasted "30 seconds."
But in a second interview with Radio-Canada, Brandone denied meeting the premier at the March 6 event. Another source, from among the Inuit representatives, was also cited anonymously saying the Charest-Brandone chat lasted two minutes.
Brandone was reported saying that he was close to Johnny Bertolo, a mobster killed in 2006, and that he knew Raynald Desjardins, who is reportedly among the most powerful figures in the Italian Mafia and who currently faces murder charges.