A court has ordered the Quebec government to pay ex-Liberal premier Jean Charest $385,000 because information about a corruption investigation targeting his former party was leaked to journalists.
Charest in 2020 filed a lawsuit against Quebec’s anti-corruption police and the province’s attorney general after details were made public in 2017 regarding an investigation into alleged illegal Liberal party financing during his tenure as premier.
The former premier and recent candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada was never charged in the investigation and has said the leaks tarnished his reputation and affected him personally.
Charest, who became Quebec Liberal leader in 1998 and served as premier between 2003 and 2012, said in a statement on Wednesday the damage to himself and his family in this case has been “irreparable.” He said that before he launched a lawsuit he had only been seeking an apology from the government for its failure to protect the privacy of its citizens.
“For the price of a sheet of paper, an envelope and a stamp, I would have accepted that this matter, although serious, be settled,” Charest said in a statement, adding that his request wasn’t acknowledged.
“That’s why I was forced to resort to the courts to assert my rights,” Charest said.
The first leaks in the investigation came in April 2017, when the Journal de Montreal reported that the ex-premier was under surveillance by Quebec’s anti-corruption police force, known as UPAC. The leaks prompted a pair of internal inquiries that recommended criminal investigations.
Quebec’s police watchdog — Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes — is investigating the leaks from UPAC. Moore’s ruling says that investigators with the watchdog found a total of 54 leaks that came before and after the first Journal de Montreal article. Journalists were told the former premier’s travel and banking transactions were being monitored. Quebec media also reported that investigators were trying to access Charest’s private communications.
UPAC in February 2022 closed its eight-year investigation — dubbed Machurer — into allegations of Charest-era illegal Liberal party financing. The police force laid no charges.
Superior Court Justice Gregory Moore wrote in a 26-page decision dated Tuesday that the leaks violated several laws and regulations that UPAC had a duty to uphold. Charest, the judge added, was owed compensatory and punitive damages.
The Quebec government has 30 days to appeal the decision.
On the stand, Charest said the media leaks shocked him and that he was distressed because he didn’t know if other personal information would be published. Charest, a lawyer, was concerned of the effect the leaks would have on the opinions of his colleagues and clients.
“He is humiliated by the inference that he is a criminal and frustrated because this insinuation is not true,” Moore wrote summarizing Charest’s testimony. “He feels guilty for bringing his family into embarrassment and humiliation.”
Lawyers representing Quebec’s attorney general did not dispute the prejudice against Charest but argued the information disclosed to the media was trivial and that public figures in some way waive the protection of their private lives.
Moore did not agree, noting that the information “may convict Mr. Charest in the public eye without the charges being presented or proven in court.”
The case also dealt with the manipulation of personal information. While the case was presented without taking into account Charest’s role as a former premier, the judge wrote “the disclosure of his personal information is of an undeniable political nature.”
“A significant sum must be granted to remind all public bodies, whether UPAC, the Quebec revenue agency, the registrar of civil status, or others, of their obligation to protect personal information,” the judgment reads.
Charest noted in his statement on Wednesday that more than five years after the leaks, he is still waiting on the province’s police watchdog or the Crown to bring charges against UPAC.
In Quebec City, Premier François Legault didn’t rule out apologizing to Charest, but he put the blame on the previous Liberal governments, who appointed the UPAC commissioner at the time of the leaks — Robert Lafrenière — who has since been replaced.
“Do I have to apologize on behalf of the government?” Legault asked reporters. “I’m not ruling that out, but we’ll analyze it properly.”