MONTREAL - The RCMP announced Friday that charges have been laid against a businessman who was described as the "central figure'' in the federal sponsorship scandal and was a close associate of ex-prime minister Jean Chretien.
Jacques Corriveau, a longtime federal Liberal organizer, is facing charges of fraud against the government, forgery and laundering proceeds of crime. He is to appear in court on Jan. 10.
The charges come after a wide-ranging investigation that was triggered nearly 11 years ago and is still underway. Police say, however, they are finished with the now 80-year-old Corriveau.
The Mounties allege that Corriveau set up a kickback system on contracts awarded during the sponsorship program, using his Pluri Design Canada Inc. to defraud the federal government.
Police say Corriveau alleged he could exert influence on the federal government to ensure certain Quebec-based firms received lucrative contracts in exchange for several million dollars in kickbacks and benefits for himself and others.
"These contracts dealt with communication products, various publications and the organization of various events," said RCMP spokesman Erique Gasse.
The sponsorship program, which was the subject of a federal government commission led by Justice John Gomery, was intended to increase the federal government presence in Quebec after the No side's slim victory in the 1995 sovereignty referendum.
In his report, Gomery laid much of the blame for the multimillion-dollar scandal on Corriveau, a longtime friend of Chretien. He worked on Chretien's unsuccessful leadership campaign in 1984 and on his successful bid in 1990.
Corriveau was also considered one of the highest-ranking federal Liberals in Quebec at one time.
Corriveau's time on the stand before the Gomery Commission in 2005 was marked by frequent lapses in memory, but he maintained his innocence throughout. He first met Chretien in 1976 regarding a trade mission to Iran when the future prime minister was in charge of the industry file.
He described Chretien as someone who "became a friend. A very good friend."
The commission chair made it clear in his final report that he didn't put a lot of stock in Corriveau's testimony.
"Jacques Corriveau was the central figure in an elaborate kickback scheme by which he enriched himself personally and provided funds and benefits to the (Quebec wing of the Liberal party),'' Gomery wrote in his report.
The federal police force also said Friday it has acted to freeze some of Corriveau's assets, including his Montreal-area residence and two investment accounts.
Corriveau is accused of facilitating sponsorship contracts that went to Groupe Polygone-Expour for the production of various publications and the organization of outdoor shows. Corriveau's Pluri Design firm is alleged to have received millions from Polygone through the elaborate kickback system.
The money was used to pay for fictitious services indicated on fake bills.
The RCMP alleges that Corriveau said he could exert influence on the government to help Groupaction Marketing get a piece of the sponsorship contracts going to Polygone, using fake invoices once again.
The Mounties also allege that some of the money taken in by Corriveau ended up in the coffers of the Liberal Party of Canada while the rest went directly to the accused himself.
Gasse said the investigation against Corriveau wrapped up in 2010, but it took some time to go through a wealth of evidence before charges were laid. The RCMP conducted a high-profile raid at his Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville home in 2007 as part of the operation, dubbed "Carnegie."
Thus far, five people have already faced criminal charges stemming from the sponsorship scandal — four advertising executives and one bureaucrat. Now Corriveau will be added to that list.
Gomery's findings at the time suggested that advertising firms won contracts based on donations to the Liberals. Although the executives were helping themselves to federal contracts, the retired Quebec judge noted that Liberal party representatives were also to blame.
There was swift reaction from Ottawa on Friday, where the Conservatives said in a statement that taxpayers are still owed money from the Liberal scandal.
And federal Industry Minister Denis Lebel claimed Chretien was soliciting funds for the Liberals just this week.
"Taxpayers are still waiting on the Liberals to pay back the missing $40 million - but instead, Chretien is fundraising for his old pal, Justin Trudeau," Lebel said.
The Opposition NDP said in a statement it's never too late for justice to be served.
"The sponsorship scandal shocked Canadians and eroded their confidence in the federal government," said MP Alexandre Boulerice, adding it's ironic to see the Conservatives wrapped up in a scandal of their own with the Senate.
"It's past time to clean up Ottawa and restore public confidence in our institutions."
The Liberals did not issue any statement.