Michelle Lalonde and William Marsden, The Gazette - Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois confirmed for the first time yesterday that her husband paid $500 to a man who had signed an affidavit that was critical to the couple obtaining permission to build a huge mansion on agricultural land on Île Bizard.
At a press conference held in a white tent on government-owned land just inside the entrance to her 41-acre estate, Marois confirmed that her husband, Claude Blanchet, gave Marcel Turcotte $500 in 1991.
She called it a "gift" to thank Turcotte for his help in proving that they had an acquired right to build their three-storey, greystone chateau on land zoned for agricultural use.
In order to build a residence on agricultural land in Quebec, the owner has to prove that a residential building existed on the land and was inhabited as of Nov. 8, 1978, when the law protecting agricultural lands came into effect.
Marois said yesterday that her husband obtained an affidavit from Turcotte in August 1991 stating that Turcotte had lived from time to time in a small cottage on the land until 1980. She handed out copies of that document.
The $500 payment to Turcotte was made a full four months later, at Christmas time, Marois said.
The notarized version of the affidavit - found by The Gazette in the files of the Commission de la protection du territoire agricole - was signed by Turcotte Nov. 12, 1991.
"Claude wanted to offer Mr. Turcotte a gift to thank him for all the inconvenience and the time he put into finding documents. He gave him $500. Not for a false signature, not because Claude had promised him anything, not because Mr. Turcotte asked for anything, but simply because this gentleman was helpful."
Marois said she had not known about the gift at the time, but sees nothing inappropriate about it. Marois was an opposition member of the National Assembly for Taillon in 1991, and Blanchet was president and executive director of the Fonds du Solidarité of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec.
"I did not know about it. When you are busy like we were, I didn't know he had given this gift. But no, I wasn't against it."
When one reporter suggested it had the appearance of influence peddling, Marois raised her voice.
"Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. No! No! It's not influence peddling. To the contrary."
Marois said she and Blanchet asked her husband's friend and business partner, Henry Walsh, to buy the land on their behalf and take their application to the commission to avoid the appearance of political favouritism.
"To avoid it seeming like that, (we got) Henry Walsh to take the steps. Pauline Marois and Claude Blanchet could have the appearance of someone trying to profit from their privileged position to obtain a zoning change."
In the end, the couple did not need to obtain a zoning change because they were able to use Turcotte's affidavit to show an acquired right to build.
Marois also distributed a letter signed by Georges St-Pierre, a former owner of the land, saying that he rented a cottage on the property to Turcotte and that Turcotte lived there until the "early 1980s."
"We had no need to go bribing anybody," Marois said.
Turcotte told The Gazette last week that he never read the affidavit and that he wasn't sure exactly when he stopped living in the cabin. His wife said that her husband had moved out of the cabin in 1975.
Marois released another statement by Turcotte yesterday, dated Sept. 26, 2007, stating that everything in his original affidavit is true and that Claude Blanchet never offered him money or anything else to sign the original document, and that he never asked for any compensation for doing so.
Marois said that a five-year lease granted in 1994, allowing them to include a tract of public land of about six acres in their estate, was terminated by Blanchet in 1996.
The irregularly shaped piece of land, which the government expropriated from a previous owner in 1978 for a future extension of Highway 440, is at the entrance to her estate.
From the time the lease began in November 1994 until he terminated it in February 1996, Blanchet paid $100 plus taxes per year to the government. Marois said Blanchet ended the lease because people were driving snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles on the land and Blanchet no longer wished to be liable for any accident occurring on his leased land.
Marois said her husband obtained written permission from Quebec's Transport Department to erect stone posts to support an iron gate at the entrance.
At no time have they been asked to remove these posts, she said, adding that she spoke with Transport Department officials yesterday and was assured that the gate poses no problems.
"I know that because of my function I am a public person," Marois said.
"I know I have to be above any suspicion. And I am."
Yesterday, the public land on the inside of the gate was delineated by bamboo posts and red ribbons.
Marois said this was to show the media it's a small section of land with no buildings on it. The Gazette has never alleged that the couple's mansion is built on public lands.
The public is free to use the government land on the inside of her gate, Marois said. But a cedar hedge and iron gate all but block access to it. The gate bears a sign reading "privé."
Marois said she decided to react to the Gazette article yesterday, against the advice of her lawyer, because it "calls into question our integrity, our honesty, and it damages our reputation. Because the suit against the Gazette will take months and in the meantime I want to establish the truth."
Once she launches a lawsuit against The Gazette, she will be unable to comment on the issue, she said, and urged journalists to pose all questions they had on the subject yesterday. The press conference was, however, terminated well before journalists had exhausted their questions.
Marois suggested that The Gazette had targeted her because she is a prominent politician and because she is married to a rich man.
"Yes, I married a successful businessman, who succeeded honestly like many other businessmen and women. Is that a fault? Does he have to become a suspect?"
Asked whether she felt she was being picked on because she is a woman, Marois said: "They don't treat men this way."