Fighting an election campaign that is turning into a referendum on corruption, Jean Charest found himself back on the defensive after a report that a police surveillance operation targeting a union official was halted after the man met with the Liberal Leader.
The campaign has already been shaken by former police officer Jacques Duchesneau, a candidate for the Coalition Avenir Québec, who says allegations of illegal fundraising in Liberal ranks will come out at a public inquiry after the Sept. 4 election.
Mr. Duchesneau has refused to give more details. A news report on Wednesday alleged that the Sûreté du Québec stopped tailing construction union leader Eddy Brandone in 2009 after he had a conversation with Mr. Charest.
In a late-evening news conference, Mr. Charest said Mr. Brandone supported his 1993 bid to lead the federal Progressive Conservative Party, and often participated in Liberal Party events.
Mr. Charest said he did not know him well and had no recollection of what was discussed nearly three years ago at a hotel in Dorval, Que., during a break from a meeting with native leaders.
"It was only cordial," he said. "I have no recollection of a conversation of substance with him."
Mr. Charest slammed the "journalistic ethics" at Radio-Canada, the French-language arm of the CBC, which reported on the meeting and the stalled police operation.
"I have never been informed about any investigation nor any of this type of surveillance," he said. "I find it insulting to insinuate that the Sûreté du Québec operation was stopped because this person crossed paths with me that day."
Radio-Canada added that unnamed SQ officers who were told that day to stop tailing Mr. Brandone were angered by the move, which is called a "blackout" in surveillance operations. The SQ refused to explain the decision to Radio-Canada, but denied any political interference.
Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois said the fact that the operation was stopped was "worrisome."
Ms. Marois then added: "It is certain that it is not normal to stop the surveillance."
Mr. Duchesneau told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Wednesday that Liberal ministers participated in illegal fundraising and that more will come out when an inquiry into corruption in the construction industry resumes in mid-September.
The star candidate for the CAQ said he can't reveal names for fear of derailing the Charbonneau commission. He also fears being sued, which he said would force him to resign as a candidate and would damage to CAQ Leader François Legault.
"There are people who will appear before the commission and testify about the illegal financing of political parties. They have evidence showing that, in one instance, a Liberal minister participated in an illegal scheme. All of this is in a report I gave to the commission. One of the next witnesses to appear before the commission will confirm it," Mr. Duchesneau said.
He also said that the PQ had used the same illegal fundraising strategies as the Liberals.
"Witnesses will testify to this," he said. "This is serious. That is why I said [at the commision] that 70 per cent of funds raised by parties was dirty money. I didn't make this up. This is what witnesses told me and who will repeat it to the commission when they testify."
Mr. Duchesneau headed the anti-collusion unit at the Quebec Ministry of Transportation. His report last September included allegations of collusion and price-fixing in the awarding of government construction contracts and illegal party fundraising. He said his investigations helped unravel price fixing.
"Our work helped save $347-million. I now have $347-million worth of enemies," he said.
While ethical questions dominate the campaign, Mr. Charest is trying to direct the debate toward education and his efforts to end student strikes. However, he is refusing to promise a crackdown on illegal protests or sanctions against teachers who refuse to work when colleges reopen next week.
"Let's wait and see for the back-to-school to happen," he said on Wednesday. "We're not into sanctions, we are into preparing the reopening of the schools."
Mr. Legault, the leader of the CAQ, is calling for sanctions against teachers who support the protests.
Mr. Charest resisted fuelling the student movement with veiled or formal threats of another police crackdown on strikers.
The Parti Québécois is most closely aligned with the student movement, while the CAQ and the Liberals are wrestling for the support of Quebeckers who favour tuition increases and support government intervention to control demonstrations.
On Wednesday, Ms. Marois said a PQ government would end the student crisis and restore a new climate of dialogue.
The PQ Leader also turned to disgruntled federalist voters irritated with the allegations of corruption and looking for an alternative. If federalist Quebeckers want to clean house and rid the province of corruption, they should back her party, Ms. Marois said in an attempt to frame the election as a chance to change governments, not take sides in a referendum on sovereignty.
According to Ms. Marois, the objective of the Sept. 4 vote was to send the "corrupt" government of Liberal Leader Jean Charest packing. She said there would be plenty of time after that to debate the matter of sovereignty where federalist could then freely decide what to do.