MONTREAL - Quebec's election campaign has been jolted by news that a celebrity anti-corruption whistleblower is preparing to enter the race.
There are multiple reports that Jacques Duchesneau has agreed to run for the new Coalition for Quebec's Future in what would be a potentially ground-shifting development.
Duchesneau is the author of two incendiary studies on corruption in the construction industry, its ties to illegal political fundraising and crime groups like the Mafia.
One of those reports has yet to be made public.
The Coalition party said it would not confirm or deny that it had recruited the man who last year played a pivotal role in prompting the government to call a corruption inquiry.
"My candidates will all be announced by Tuesday," Coalition Leader Francois Legault said, grinning broadly Friday.
"I have nothing to announce today."
He did salute Duchesneau's "integrity."
An ex-Montreal police chief, Duchesneau had been hired by the Charest Liberals and he produced a report on how the construction industry was bilking the public purse and using some of its cash to illegally fund political parties.
That report was leaked to the media. It created such a sensation last fall that, after two years of refusing to call a public inquiry, Premier Jean Charest finally relented.
Duchesneau made waves again in June when he revealed that he was the one who leaked the document. He testified at the inquiry that he gave it to a journalist because he was convinced the government was planning to ignore it.
A former policeman, federal civil servant and defeated mayoral candidate, Duchesneau has a history of public spats with several professional colleagues, including the provincial government and Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay.
The Coalition is participating in its first election campaign.
It promises to shelve the independence debate and bring together Quebecers of federalist and separatist backgrounds to tackle other pressing issues.
The party led opinion polls earlier this year, but more recently has been in third place in a close three-way fight. It risked being sidelined in the news coverage in the first days of the campaign, when talk was mostly about student strikes and ethics.
That dynamic shifted Friday.
There was an immediate example of the impact Duchesneau's candidacy would have on the race. The Parti Quebecois held a news conference to introduce its economic team of candidates and the event was overshadowed by questions about another party's recruit.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois reacted warily to Duchesneau's reported entry in the race.
"I'd be a bit stunned because he said he would not be returning to politics," she said citing Duchesneau, who had suggested his political career was over after a defeat in Montreal municipal politics.
If it happens, Marois said his candidacy would harm the Liberals and not her party: "I believe the Parti Quebecois has been very clear on the integrity issue," she said.
For his part, Charest declined to comment.
Every party has tried to claim some ownership of the ethics issue.
The PQ has promised a democratic-reform package that includes $100 limits on political contributions, voting at age 16, and referendums initiated by citizens who collect petitions. The Liberals have pointed to the anti-corruption squads they created, the inquiry, and to numerous pieces of legislation they passed to tighten political fundraising and oversight of public contracts.
After news reports about wrongdoing in municipal politics and construction, the Charest Liberals created an anti-collusion unit in 2010. They hired Duchesneau to run it. He was fired later, after being transferred to a larger new unit, following run-ins with his new boss.
Duchesneau has since said that he was so disturbed by the scope of corruption that even after he was fired he continued to work, as a volunteer, on a second volume of his report.
He said he received tips from members of the public and made about 50 pages of notes from informants describing illegal schemes in the construction industry and political financing.
He produced a second report that has never surfaced publicly. He tabled it with the inquiry in June and it was to receive a fact-checking before being published for public consumption. For now, the document is being treated not as evidence tabled before the inquiry but as a tip from the public.
Duchesneau's still-secret report is titled, "The illegal funding of political parties: A hypocritical system where influence is awarded and decisions are for sale."
So far his most sensational allegation has been that 70 per cent of money raised by Quebec political parties is done illegally and that "dirty money" is the norm.
While testifying in June, he cited one vivid image relayed to him by one of his investigators: an unnamed municipal party was so flush with fundraising cash that it couldn't close the door of its safe.
But he has yet to provide specific names from the world of politics. His so-far-untested allegations have prompted an aggressive pushback.
He was grilled at the inquiry by lawyers for the Quebec government and the opposition Parti Quebecois, and challenged to show evidence for his claims.
Duchesneau snapped at the government lawyer at one point. None of the lawyer's questions were about corruption — but focused instead on things like administrative details about the office he ran.
"The enemy is the people I spent 18 months tracking,'' Duchesneau said in June. "All these questions are really funny. We point out collusion to you, and what you're looking at is my finger _ not where we should be going.
"That's what's sad.''
It was better news for the Coalition than other developments early Friday. The party's official agent resigned.
Marc Deschamps was involved in a real-estate transaction that prompted police to arrest nine people earlier this year for breach of trust.
Though he denies any wrongdoing, and wasn't among those charged, Deschamps says he doesn't want to distract from the party's transparent-government message.
Campaigning in Montreal, Charest raised the spectre of another sovereignty referendum to get Quebec's anglophones out to vote for his Liberals. He said Anglos who don't vote on election day could help the PQ take power with their absence.
The federalist Liberals have been able to count on the votes of Quebec's Anglos for years but are now being challenged by the Coalition.
In a message aimed at winning over demoralized members of Charest's base, the Coalition says Anglos are taken for granted by the Liberals despite their electoral loyalty.
An English-language leaders' debate, however, seems out of the question in this election. In an interview on radio station CJAD, Charest agreed to one. So did Coalition Leader Francois Legault. But PQ Leader Pauline Marois says she's not comfortable enough in English to debate in the language.
Marois focused on economic issues on Friday, saying her party would create an economic development bank for Quebec which would help stimulate the economy in the regions and provide risk capital for small- and medium-sized business.
Legault, campaigning with Gaetan Barrette, who is being touted as a future health minister in any Coalition Quebec government, concentrated on health issues by promising to cut emergency room wait times and ensure Quebecers have access to family doctors.