UPAC boss Robert Lafrenière says nobody is above the law, defends independence

UPAC commissioner Robert Lafrenière arrives to testify before the National Assembly’s institutions committee on Thursday, May 4, 2017.
Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS

QUEBEC — The head of Quebec’s anti-corruption unit has aggressively defended the agency’s independence and says that just as nobody can influence its work, nobody is above the law.

But Robert Lafrenière’s appearance Thursday before the National Assembly’s institutions committee did little to appease the skepticism of the opposition and the ragtag clutch of corruption whistleblowers who turned up to see the show.

In a departure from his normally reserved nature, a loquacious Lafrenière tackled the questions everyone is asking: Is his unit — which costs taxpayers $39 million a year — vulnerable to outside political influences, and is it sitting on politically explosive files involving prominent persons?

“Nobody is above the law,” Lafrenière told the committee, answering a question from the Liberal MNA for Champlain, Pierre-Michel Auger. “Our results speak for themselves. Nobody gets immunity.”

In fact, if a person suspected is an elected official, that gives even more incentive to act and act quickly, he said.

For the last two weeks, the opposition has been pushing the theory that Quebec’s Liberals enjoy immunity from UPAC’s investigations. More specifically, they allege an operation called Mâchurer — which is probing illegal party financing and is focused on the Liberals — has hit a logjam before due to political interference.

The operation was launched in 2013. It is looking into the activities of 30 people, including former premier Jean Charest and former Liberal money man Marc Bibeau.

“Nothing is blocked,” Lafrenière said, vowing to see Mâchurer complete its mandate. 

“What creates that impression (of blocked files) is the length of time our files take. But we will get there, and I really have the impression we’ll be slapping the handcuffs on people,” he said, without naming any names.

He said when cases are stalled it’s often because lawyers are invoking legal challenges to defend their clients, not because of outside meddling.  

But he said UPAC is not about to start cutting corners on the complex work that goes into successfully bringing someone to trial and getting a conviction.

“People want to see handcuffs, but also convictions,” Lafrenière said. “Citizens want results. I am very aware of this.”


Lafrenière then addressed the other simmering issue: whether anyone in the political machine, from the premier’s office down, meddles in the hot cases.

Lafrenière said that does not happen. He said he has spoken to Premier Philippe Couillard’s chief of staff, Jean-Louis Dufresne, twice since UPAC was created in 2011, and it was regarding technical issues about government programs.

He went further, saying woe betide anyone — such as a political operative — who tried to change the course of a case. In the modern world, word would get out fast, he said, and the person would be completely discredited.

“There has never been a tendency or an attempt to influence an investigation that is underway, to make it go faster or slow it down,” he said. “I feel completely independent. I have no political agenda. We work on our own — politics is not us.”

But Lafrenière couldn’t escape tough questions on UPAC’s operations, particularly a series of highly compromising leaks of the Mâchurer file to the Québecor media group, which includes Le Journal de Montréal and TVA.

For the first time, he confirmed that the leaked documents — which became front-page news — emanated from his office.

“I was furious,” Lafrenière said. “A leak like this is unacceptable.”

He said the finger-pointing started immediately in the small, close-knit team, but they decided to soldier on. Two retired police officers have been hired to investigate the leak — a first in UPAC history — and will get the answers, he said.

“It was an act of total disloyalty,” he said, raising his voice. “There are things I can’t talk about in this investigation, but I ardently hope we reach a conclusion and we find the crook who did this.” 

He moved rapidly to correct the impression his unit was intimidated as a result of the leak, saying it had no effect whatsoever on the team’s work.

“If the person who did this wanted to destabilize us, all they managed to do is distract us,” he said.

Neither Lafrenière nor Sûreté du Québec head Martin Prud’homme, who attended the same committee hearings, had much to say about fresh corruption allegations made by Montreal police union chief Yves Francoeur.

Last week Francoeur told 98.5 FM radio he is aware of two Liberals — one sitting and one who left politics — whom UPAC was ready to charge with fraud and corruption. Francoeur said the cases were blocked by someone in the Crown prosecutor’s office.

The SQ is investigating his comments, which rattled the political class because no names have come out. Lafrenière and Prud’homme said they knew nothing about the allegations.

On Thursday, after many delays, Francoeur confirmed he met two SQ investigators to explain his story.

Lafrenière’s appearance came as the province’s political class has been rocked by allegations of corruption to the point that the legislature is experiencing unparalleled levels of suspicion and rancour.

Opening the hearings, Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux addressed the current climate, saying the credibility of Quebec’s institutions, such as UPAC and police forces, has taken a hit.

It is essential the committee clearly re-establish the separation between state, police and the judiciary, he said.

“The government does its work, the police must do its work,” he said.

But as the hearings wrapped up, the opposition complained the system is still flawed because the head of UPAC is named by the government. True independence would come if he was named by a two-thirds vote of the legislature, they said.

“I still have doubts (about his independence),” said Parti Québécois house leader Pascal Bérubé, who questioned Lafrenière at the committee.

“We need more concrete assurances that there is no immunity,” added Québec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir.

The day also had a sideshow with the arrival of a few key players from the Charbonneau Commission days who questioned the ethics of the Charest government.

“As a citizen, I don’t trust them (UPAC) yet,” said union whistleblower Ken Pereira.

Another who walked in was Lino Zambito, who appeared at the Charbonneau Commission, which examined corruption and collusion and has complained UPAC is coasting instead of arresting people.

“When I say we don’t have the truth (about these cases), we didn’t get it this morning,” Zambito told reporters.


Go to Source