Monday, June 29, 2009

Was Maxime Bernier a Mere Puppet?

Julie Couillard had an unsavoury past to be sure, with connections to organized crime, including the Montreal mafia, loan sharks, drug dealers and biker gangs, and it was said, even ran a brothel.

However, by the time she met Maxime Bernier, it would appear she had moved on to bigger fish.

The Conservative Party of Canada.

And who would make a better mark, than a key cabinet minister? A single guy, who fancied himself a ladies man, but by his own admission, had not had a girlfriend in two years. Some of Bernier' s colleagues were starting to suspect that he was gay, so escorting the buxom Ms. Couillard would certainly put those rumours to rest.

But was the entire thing a setup?

They were introduced by a real estate developer who was hoping to land a contract to construct a federal building in Quebec. Julie worked for that developer and at one time was romantically involved with an aide in the public work's office. So was Julie pimped out and Maxime seduced, for an office building? Sure looks like it.

When Max met Julie ...
Then-minister Bernier and one-time model Couillard were introduced at restaurant whose clientele included stars and gangsters
June 12, 2008
Sean Gordon
Quebec Bureau Chief

MONTREAL–The restaurant where then-industry minister Maxime Bernier first met an enchanting brunette named Julie Couillard is a chic Italian eatery and bar frequented by movie stars, beautiful people and, on occasion, gangsters.

Couillard was brought to a dinner gathering, held in Bernier's honour in April of last year, by a colleague from a property development firm with which she had recently become affiliated, sources say.

A La Presse investigation has revealed the man who accompanied Couillard to Ristorante Cavalli on the evening of April 26, 2007, was Philippe Morin, one of two owners of Groupe Kevlar, a large Montreal property developer.

The investigation has confirmed Morin brought Couillard along to a weekly dinner held by a handful of young Montreal businesspeople, and that Bernier's acquaintances among the group intended to introduce the minister, a bachelor, to the one-time actress and model. Morin could not be reached for comment last night.

Cavalli is a swank bar and restaurant in downtown Montreal, frequented by the city's wealthy and celebrated, including Formula One drivers and actors. But it has also made headlines for more than its food or atmosphere.

In August 2006, a well-known Hells Angels associate was outside the restaurant in his Porsche when a man began firing shots at the vehicle. No one was injured.

Alleged Mafia enforcer Lorenzo Giordano, an occasional patron of the establishment, was questioned at length by police at the scene. It was later reported the incident began as a scuffle inside the bar.

A few months later, Giordano skipped town as police prepared to arrest him in a sweep that netted 90 members and associates of purported Sicilian Mafia leader Vito Rizzuto. He was later arrested at an upscale health club.

Kevlar has denied Couillard was ever employed by the company and insists she never worked in the company's offices. It issued a statement last month saying the firm was simply sponsoring an independent agent.

But a real-estate industry database continues to list Couillard as an "affiliated agent" with the company, she completed her realtor's exams in 2007 and was registered with Kevlar on April 7 that year.

Also, Le Devoir reported this week that Couillard attended a fundraising cocktail party on April 17, 2007, in a Tory riding near Montreal and presented a Kevlar business card.

Sources told La Presse she used her connections to Bernier and other government officials to vaunt the merits of the firm's plan for a federal office building in Quebec City. The tender for the building has not yet closed, and the same sources insist neither Bernier nor any other officials intervened on her or Kevlar's behalf.

Public Works Minister Michael Fortier dismissed his senior Quebec aide on Tuesday after it was revealed he was dating Couillard – who has previously lived with or dated at least four people with strong links to organized crime – around the time she was first listed as a Kevlar agent. An independent auditor is to report on whether the bidding process for the federal building is tainted because of the relationship between the aide, Bernard Côté, and Couillard.

In Ottawa yesterday, the Liberals said there are security reasons to investigate whether the federal government is being targeted by organized crime.

"There is the possibility that organized crime is trying to infiltrate the government," Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion told reporters. "I'm not saying it's what happened. But certainly all the experts of security who have spoken (say) ... this is the pattern that you need to check."

Less than a month after earning her certification, she found herself at the same table as Bernier.

In an interview with the Quebecor-owned Canoe website, Couillard described meeting Bernier through a "business partner," in late April, 2007, a few weeks after she had been sounded out about running for the party.

Couillard said Bernier "sat down near me" during the dinner and that she accompanied him for a nightcap at his hotel bar. The two became romantically involved later that week.

Bernier yesterday broke his silence to speak with a radio station in his Quebec riding of Beauce.

Bernier said he has avoided television, newspapers and his Blackberry since he resigned on May 26 and spent a few days in a "closed retreat" to "recharge my batteries." "I'm well ... but I've lived through a very difficult period lately," he said. "This has been very difficult psychologically. ... I'm very happy to be back home and with the unanimous support of people in the Beauce."

In the 15-minute interview, Bernier refused to answer questions about Couillard.

Bernier resigned as foreign affairs minister last month amid revelations he had left confidential documents at Couillard's house.

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