The Quebec public inquiry into corruption has taken the rare step of rebuking rookie politician Jacques Duchesneau in the middle of the election campaign.
Mr. Duchesneau, a star candidate for the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec, told media this week that the Charbonneau Commission lawyers wasted his time when he appeared this spring to discuss a report into collusion in the construction industry.
"I was examined and cross-examined for five days and I was never able to get my message across," Mr. Duchesneau told Le Journal de Québec.
The lead counsel at the inquiry, Sylvain Lussier, shot back that Mr. Duchesneau underwent extensive pre-interviews with the commission staff, and was interviewed on the stand according to what had been previously discussed.
He added that Mr. Duchesneau provided the commission with confidential reports that included vague information and statements from anonymous sources identified by code names, which are still being reviewed.
"Mr. Duchesneau was treated in the same way that we will treat all witnesses at the inquiry," Mr. Lussier said in an interview. "If he had other things to say, he had the opportunity to do it."
The intervention by the lead counsel at the Commission of Inquiry is a surprising foray by the independent body in the middle of the election campaign, with a vote set for Sept. 4. Mr. Lussier said his goal is simply to "re-establish the facts" and avoid getting dragged into the campaign.
"The system of justice, of which we are part, should not be offended by criticism," he said.
CAQ Leader François Legault defended his star candidate, saying that Mr. Duchesneau is willing to go back in front of the commission of inquiry on Monday to answer more questions.
He accused Mr. Lussier of having "showed a serious lack of judgment," adding he failed to exercise the proper restraint as a member of a commission of inquiry.
The CAQ is determined to fight back, realizing that the comments pose a serious threat to Mr. Duchesneau's reputation.
The other main parties in the race are already trying to capitalize on the controversy in a bid to undermine Mr. Duchesneau's credibility.
Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois blasted Mr. Duchesneau, saying the PQ spent months calling for the inquiry and with hearings under way, this was not the time to undermine its work.
"It is disconcerting that Mr. Duchesneau would cast doubt over the Charbonneau commission," Ms. Marois said. "If he has something to say, he should reveal them to the commission. He had a chance to say it when he was questioned by the commission."
The latest skirmish involving Mr. Duchesneau exposes how he leaves no one indifferent in his wake. Heralded as a potential game changer in the election, Mr. Duchesneau has also quickly showcased his large ego, his propensity for dramatic statements, as well as his tendency to anger government officials and fail to back up some of his most explosive comments.
Mr. Duchesneau entered the election campaign on Sunday to such a strong reputation as an anti-corruption crusader that strategists for the Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois were unsure how to take him on, for fear of provoking a public backlash.
However, Mr. Duchesneau has quickly earned a reputation for shooting from the hip, starting with comments Monday morning that he would pick the anti-corruption ministers in a CAQ government. Mr. Legault quickly moved to say there would be "only one boss" and that Mr. Duchesneau would only be consulted on government nominations.
When he testified before the commission last June, Mr. Duchsneau made a shocking revelation claiming that 70 per cent of the funding of political parties was raised through illegal practices.
At the time, the lawyer representing the PQ at the commission, Estelle Tremblay, was outraged by Mr. Duchesneau's allegations and lashed out publicly against the anti-corruption crusader's credibility.
The lawyer was immediately called to order by Ms. Marois. But now the PQ leader suggests Ms. Tremblay may have been right.
"Some say that she was a bit too zealous in her reaction when in fact she was simply dumbfounded by (Mr. Duchesneau's) responses. Perhaps Mr. Lussier's comments show that she was right," Ms. Marois said.
If elected as premier, the PQ leader said she would implement without hesitation the inquiry's recommendations. She reiterated her full confidence in the commission's ability to conduct its mandate in lifting the veil on corruption in the construction industry, the awarding of government contracts and the funding of political parties.
On Tuesday, Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest also attacked Mr. Duchesneau for backing away from his threat of launching new allegations of corruption at the Liberals.
"If he is afraid of lawsuits, it might be because he is not convinced that his information is accurate," Mr. Charest said. "That's quite the confession that he is making."
Mr. Lussier said that the Commission does not want to start commenting on the testimony that it receives, adding the three commissioners – Ms. Justice France Charbonneau, former Quebec auditor-general Renaud Lachance and lawyer Roderick A. Macdonald – will have their say in the final report.