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Liberals counter colleague's funding denials at corruption inquiry

QUEBEC - The testimony of a sitting Liberal member of the legislature at the Charbonneau Commission has caused some ripples with her political family in Quebec City.

As the Liberals gathered for a pre-session caucus on Thursday, questions swirled around the future of Julie Boulet, a former transport minister who is currently a backbencher in Philippe Couillard's government.

Boulet testified again at the corruption inquiry in Montreal on Thursday and continued to be dogged by the question of a $100,000 annual funding objective for cabinet ministers back in the 2000s.

Inquiry counsel Sonia LeBel confronted Boulet with the words of two of her ex-cabinet colleagues, Sam Hamad and Christine St-Pierre, who said the $100,000 objective was widely known.

LeBel also noted that Couillard said in 2012, before being elected, that he thought the quota wasn't a good idea.

Boulet reiterated she had no idea about any fundraising objectives until learning of them from a colleague in 2009.

But her own current political boss contradicted her as the Liberals met ahead of the resumption of the legislature next Tuesday.

Couillard said all elected officials knew about the targets under the Charest government.

"As with every political party, people knew the funding objectives," he said.

But he told a news conference later that rules have changed. Since 2013, the maximum donation has dropped to $100 per year per individual. Public subsidies to finance parties have been increased to offset the donation limit.

"Fundraising now has completely changed, we are not at all in the same environment," Couillard said.

"There's no need anymore to have fundraising activities, there is no need anymore to have political parties who are dedicated to fundraising. It just doesn't exist anymore."

Boulet insisted she wasn't pressured to gather specific amounts and that fundraising and electoral expense tasks were delegated to staff.

She repeated that a six-figure funding objective seemed impractical and unthinkable given that her central Quebec riding was poor.

That said, figures assembled by Boulet suggested she met or surpassed that $100,000 target five out of 10 years in cabinet.

In particular, her years as transport minister were fruitful — $130,000 in 2007, $134,000 in 2008 and $125,000 in 2009. By August 2010, she had been shuffled into the labour portfolio and her donations were halved to $63,000.

Boulet was junior transport minister between 2003 and '07 before assuming the full-fledged transport portfolio from 2007 to 2010.

The pharmacist by trade had a difficult two days on the stand, marked by frequent memory lapses and a lack of knowledge about topics.

She was left out of cabinet by Couillard, who said Boulet remains a "current" member of the Liberal caucus. Later, the premier said he still had confidence in Boulet, who was first elected in 2001.

The premier cautioned against jumping to conclusions against Boulet, saying her testimony came voluntarily.

"A commission of inquiry is not a tribunal," Couillard said. "As far as I know, no guilt has been expressed or can be expressed in such an environment."

While Hamad and St-Pierre said everyone knew about the goals, Education Minister Yves Bolduc said he believes Boulet was being honest.

"Sometimes a minister is not interested (in fundraising)," Bolduc said. In the same breath, Bolduc said the $100,000 goal was in place when he served as health minister in the Charest government.

Municipal Affairs Minister Pierre Moreau also appeared to side with Boulet, saying he was never given a fundraising directive.

"I was part of the cabinet in 2008 as party whip and never, never did they ask me to contribute or attain a $100,000 objective," said Moreau.

Boulet issued a few more denials on the stand Thursday. Former transport officials had testified that untendered contracts were chosen by Boulet from a list of predetermined projects.

She said she did not recall ever intervening in such fashion. Projects were doled out according to the budgets in place, Boulet assured. At most, she may have asked a project be added if the budget permitted, usually with security reasons in mind.

She also weighed in on the outsourcing of government engineering work to private firms, which was necessary before the department lacked expertise.

Boulet said she did not see a link between hefty political donations from those firms and the amount of work they received.

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