A corruption scandal has hit Quebec's political establishment with the arrest of a powerful former Liberal cabinet minister – the first high-level figure among the dozens of local politicians, bureaucrats, party organizers and business executives already charged with illegal political fundraising and bribery.
Nathalie Normandeau, the deputy premier for four years under Jean Charest and who sat around the cabinet table with Premier Philippe Couillard when he was health minister, was arrested by the province's anti-corruption unit and is being charged with corruption, conspiracy, fraud and bribery. Marc-Yvan Côté, a long-time party organizer and onetime cabinet minister, also faces corruption charges along with five others.
"These charges are serious. Not only are they against the law, they threaten the foundations of democracy," said Robert Lafrenière, head of the anti-corruption unit.
The Quebec government, which was already struggling to control the political agenda amid a dozen smaller controversies, is once again being hounded by questions about who else in current ranks knew of illegal financing schemes.
Rattled Liberal cabinet ministers avoided answering questions even as Finance Minister Carlos Leitao was a block away presenting a good-news balanced budget. A modest cut to health-care taxes and daycare fees and increases in education spending were blown from the top of newscasts by the revival of the corruption scandal. Mr. Lafrenière said the timing was a coincidence.
Mr. Couillard insisted much has changed since Mr. Charest was in charge.
The short-lived PQ minority government elected in 2012 reduced the donations limit to $100 and tightened other controls.
"This doesn't speak to the party I run now," Mr. Couillard said. "It speaks to a different time, a different context. The party I lead now has exemplary practices in political financing. But I don't minimize this morning's events. UPAC [the anti-corruption unit] has done its job."
A spokesman for Mr. Charest said he was out of the country and would not comment.
Police released Ms. Normandeau Thursday morning on a promise to appear in court April 20. "She has done nothing wrong on a criminal level, and we will show that at trial," her lawyer, Maxime Roy, said.
The charges stem from an $11-million contract to build a water-treatment plant in the Montreal bedroom community of Boisbriand. Court documents and testimony at the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption detailed allegations that Ms. Normandeau overruled officials in her Municipal Affairs department in 2007 to award the contract to the Roche engineering firm – a company already accused of skirting finance rules by putting up fake donors to front illegal corporate donations.
"The engineering firm had a business development approach that was rather aggressive," said Inspector André Boulanger, head of investigations at the permanent anti-corruption squad.
Construction boss Lino Zambito, who was also part of the Boisbriand contract, testified at the inquiry that he showered Ms. Normandeau with gifts such as roses and Céline Dion concert tickets. Mr. Zambito has already pleaded guilty to fraud and corruption and received a suspended sentence. He earlier pleaded guilty to trying to fix a municipal election also tied to the water contract.
Investigators filed documents in court two years ago to justify a raid on Liberal headquarters in which they said high fundraising demands imposed by the Liberals under then-premier Charest –$100,000 per year, per minister – pushed them to stretch the rules. No fewer than 10 current cabinet ministers served under Mr. Charest.
"What did those people know? Did they participate in anything? They each had to raise $100,000. How exactly did they do it?" Françoise David, a member of the Québec solidaire party, said Thursday.
Ms. Normandeau testified at the Charbonneau inquiry that she was aware political donors might expect favours in return but she was "careful to build a wall" between awarding contracts and political activities. "But I'm not naive, I know there were people who were looking for favours," she said.
After four years of self-imposed exile as the scandal swirled around her, Ms. Normandeau returned to public life in early 2015, as radio personality in Quebec City where she roared to the top of the ratings. She gave interviews where she fiercely defended her reputation and spoke about the relief of life after politics.
The new life came crashing down Thursday. Her radio station, FM93, quickly suspended her without pay and removed her from the station's promotional material.