The Bastarache inquiry stands to be in large part a credibility battle between Quebec Premier Jean Charest and his former minister of justice, Marc Bellemare.
As a result, Mr. Bellemare's testimony (which will include cross-examination by other lawyers next week) will be closely scrutinized. Given that Mr. Bellemare apparently did not share his concerns about allegations of patronage with anyone else and has little physical evidence to corroborate his statements, the quality of the former minister of justice's memory is a crucial matter.
Mr. Bellemare's testimony has been praised by many observers so far. But on one particular topic, his evidence is shaky.
The crux of the inquiry's work are Mr. Bellemare's allegations he was pressured various Liberal officials and fundraisers to appoint or promote three judges: Marc Bisson, Michel Simard and Line Gosselin-Després.
Regarding Mr. Bisson, Mr. Bellemare said he was urged to appoint the Crown prosecutor to the bench because his father, Guy Bisson, was an important Liberal organizer in the Outaouais region, across the river from Ottawa.
The pressure came in 2003, according to Mr. Bellemare, and Mr. Bisson was appointed to the bench in November of that year. Mr. Bellemare added that, in private conversations in 2003, he was warned there could be controversy surrounding the fact Guy Bisson was implicated in the sponsorship scandal.
According to page 93 of the transcript of Mr. Bellemare's testimony, which has been posted on the Bastarache inquiry's website, Mr. Bellemare would have been warned about Guy Bisson's link to the sponsorship scandal in August, 2003, by Liberal MP Norm MacMillan and Liberal fundraiser Franco Fava.
"I was told that with Guy Bisson, things were shady in relation to sponsorship," Mr. Bellemare testified Tuesday.
Mr. Bellemare explained he was warned at the time that Guy Bisson could appear before the Gomery inquiry, which was to be called after a report by Auditor-General Sheila Fraser. But the report by Ms. Fraser into the sponsorship program was in fact tabled six months later, in February of 2004, and the Gomery inquiry started its hearings in September of that year.
Guy Bisson's name popped up for the first time at the inquiry on March 17, 2005, and his name was only linked indirectly to the sponsorship program. Here is an excerpt from The Globe and Mail's story that appeared the following day:
Ad firm hid payments to Liberals, Gomery told
An advertising firm at the heart of the sponsorship scandal camouflaged tens of thousands of dollars in payments to the Liberal Party and to Liberal organizers through one of its subsidiaries in Quebec City, the Gomery inquiry heard yesterday.
Documents show that Groupaction Marketing Inc. made a series of payments of almost $80,000 to one of its employees in Quebec City, Bernard Thiboutot, in the year 2000.
Mr. Thiboutot testified he was asked by Groupaction's president, Jean Brault, to transfer $20,000 to the Liberal Party of Canada, and to make total payments of $57,000 to five people.
He said that the transactions went through his firm, Commando Marketing, to hide the fact the money came from Groupaction, which was one of the biggest recipients of federal sponsorship funds.
"Mr. Brault said he had a list of people to pay, but that he wanted to pay them through my firm because he did not want to have an employment link with these people. [Mr. Brault]was my boss, so he sent me an amount of money and a list of people that had to send me invoices, which I paid," Mr. Thiboutot said.
(...) Another payment for $6,400 was made out to Guy Bisson, which is the name of the co-president of the Liberal Party's seniors commission.
Reached in Gatineau, Que., Mr. Bisson said he remembers being paid about $6,000 by a company located in Quebec City for a poll of three Liberal ridings in western Quebec before the 2000 election.
Mr. Bisson said he was picked by the former director-general of the Liberal Party's Quebec wing, Benoît Corbeil, to get information on the voting intentions of 1,200 people in the Outaouais. Mr. Bisson said the objective was to see whether the then-Reform Party was gaining ground against the Liberals.
Mr. Bisson said he did not remember if Commando paid him for the work, but he does remember the payment came from a firm in Quebec City, Commando's home base.
Mr. Bellemare quit as minister of justice in April, 2004, almost one year before Guy Bisson was publicly linked for the first time to the sponsorship scandal. In that context, there are questions surrounding Mr. Bellemare's memory of the warnings he received about Guy Bisson, especially in relation to the publication of the Auditor-General's report and the existence of the Gomery inquiry.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Fava, when he is called to testify, will say he had independent knowledge, in the summer of 2003, that Guy Bisson had been indirectly paid by Groupaction three years earlier for political work.