|Former construction magnate Lino Zambito testifies at the Charbonneau inquiry on Sept. 27, 2012. (JEAN-LOUIS FORTIN/QMI Agency)
MONTREAL - Quebec Liberals raised tens of thousands of dollars through illegal contributions from contractors using aliases and false invoicing, an inquiry has heard.
The allegations by whistleblowing former contractor Lino Zambito surround a fundraiser he said he organized in 2008 for Nathalie Normandeau, a top cabinet minister under then-premier Jean Charest.
Zambito gave the explosive testimony last week under a publication ban that was partially lifted Tuesday.
It's the first time the Charbonneau Commission has heard allegations of wrongdoing that directly involves the Quebec Liberal Party under Charest.
He called the inquiry after resisting calls to do so for two years.
Zambito told the commission about several fundraising events, involving between 20 to 50 people, organized by engineering consulting firms.
The firms sold tickets through construction contractors, who spent $1,000, $2,000 or even $5,000 per plate.
Zambito said he organized a fundraiser on Jan. 31, 2008, for Normandeau, then deputy premier and municipal affairs minister.
The goal was to raise at least $100,000 for the Liberal election campaign, which worked out to $5,000 per guest that evening. At the time, campaign financing rules capped annual individual contributions at $3,000.
Zambito, looking to stay in the government's good graces, said he vigorously worked the phones to get contractors and engineering firms to pony up for the event.
"I wanted each and every engineering firm to bring a politician, to stay on the Ministry of Municipal Affairs ('radar')," he testified under the publication ban.
"I contacted people, I said, 'Look, here's how we'll do it, I'll sell you two tickets. For each individual who shows up, I put in $5,000. Remember there's an election law, so if you have two people, it costs you $10,000, but don't make me more than a $3,000 cheque. The law is clear. It's $3,000'."
The Liberals pulled in $110,000 following the Jan. 31, 2008, fundraiser, the ex-contractor said.
But the party only reported $77,500, at $1,000 per person, to the chief electoral officer.
When asked who fudged the numbers, Zambito said he did not know.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Normandeau admits she took part in fundraisers but denied any links to illicit financing.
"I was never involved in organizing these activities," she wrote. "I want to reiterate that I have always done my work with rigor while being aware of the importance of honouring citizens' trust. I will not allow anyone to question my integrity."
It's not the first time Normandeau's name has been linked to alleged wrongdoing.
She quit politics suddenly in September 2011, citing personal reasons.
The accounting firm Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton later hired the ex-minister as a vice-president and also received a contract to promote Charest's northern plan to develop natural resources.
Normandeau had been directly responsible for the northern plan when she was in cabinet.