Dubious donations snag PQ chief

MONTREAL – As political mudslinging goes, it would be hard to beat the last few weeks in the National Assembly.

With the beleaguered Speaker of the House struggling to maintain decorum, the governing Liberals and opposition MNAs have been going at it like cats and dogs.

The big issue remains political ethics – and who, when it comes down to it, can come up with the biggest scandal to tarnish the other.

Yesterday, after weeks of leading the attack on the Liberal government in a crusade for an inquiry into allegations of corruption in the construction industry, it was Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois’s turn to take a hit.

La Presse revealed that when she was contemplating a run for the party leadership in 2005, three of her children – while students and not employed – generously donated to their mother’s campaign. Her sons Félix, 24, François-Christophe, 22, and Jean Sébastien, 20, contributed the maximum allowed under the law: $3,000.

Her daughter, Catherine, at the time an employee of a video store, managed to come up with $2,600.

In all, the story says, 17 members of Marois’s family – including her mother – and that of her husband, Claude Blanchet, contributed to the campaign.

The donations raised questions about whether Marois – in a desperate attempt to raise money – used her children’s names as fronts to funnel her own cash into the campaign.

It is a practice the PQ has accused the Liberals of using as a way of funnelling money to itself – only in the case of the Liberals, the money comes from employees of large engineering or construction companies.

As corporations are not allowed to donate, they get their employees to give and then refund it on the sly.

The practice is illegal under Quebec’s election laws. Only individuals are allowed to contribute, and it has to be their own money.

Yesterday, Premier Jean Charest grabbed onto the news item, ripping into Marois.

"When it comes to the use of fronts, she is the Quebec champion," Charest fired across the floor. "She does exactly the opposite of everything she has asserted."

He said the white scarf Marois has been wearing – she has said it’s a symbol that her party is pure when it comes to political financing – has been dragged through the mud.

"She is mocking Quebecers in moralizing (us)," Charest said. "She is the one who chose to present herself in a white scarf, stating she is pure. Her white scarf is pretty dirty now. It’s starting to be sewn with black thread."

Undaunted, Marois launched her own attack. She challenged Charest to make public the list of donors to his 1998 provincial Liberal Party leadership campaign.

"I prefer to be financed by my family than Karlheinz Schreiber, who is in prison," she shot back. "And by the way, can the premier tell us if it was $10,000 or $30,000 that his brother negotiated with the arms merchant (Schreiber)?"

Marois added: "You can be sure of one thing: Neither my mother nor my children will be getting road paving contracts or permits for child care centres."

Marois later issued a statement saying in both her leadership campaigns, in 2005 and 2007, she insisted on making the list of her contributors public even though she was not obliged to by the law. "I acted in a completely transparent way and have nothing to hide," she said.

Amir Khadir, the Québec solidaire MNA for the Montreal riding of Mercier, raised a new allegation a few moments after. He claimed a conflict of interest between Charest and his former Sherbrooke riding campaign manager, AndrÈ Couturier, because Couturier works for CIMA Plus, an engineering firm that received millions of dollars worth of untendered government contracts.

In the last provincial campaign, Khadir said, 64 members of the firm contributed a total of $170,000 to the Liberals.

"The close ties with Mr. Couturier places the premier in what appears to be a conflict of interest," Khadir said. "This is serious enough for an investigation. The premier must launch an a commission (of inquiry) or submit his resignation."

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