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RCMP probe brings mess for Tories

OTTAWA - The Conservatives are distancing themselves from a messy scandal brewing over a big government renovation contract involving an RCMP probe, hints of corruption, and even a link to the Hells Angels.

OTTAWA - The Conservatives are distancing themselves from a messy scandal brewing over a big government renovation contract involving an RCMP probe, hints of corruption, and even a link to the Hells Angels.

The Mounties confirmed Wednesday that they are looking into the relationship between Montreal company LM Sauve and Gilles Varin, a long-time Conservative supporter.

LM Sauve won a $9-million contract to restore Parliament Hill's West Block in May 2008, and filed bankruptcy papers a year later.

Company owner Paul Sauve says he hired Varin, a Tory supporter who has a criminal record, to help win the contract from the Public Works Department, and paid him $140,000 from 2007 to 2009.

The RCMP confirms it is investigating the awarding of the West Block contract, and published media reports say the probe centres around lobbying rules and anti-corruption laws.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists there's no evidence of wrongdoing by the Conservatives, emphasizing that no members of his government are under investigation in the matter.

"On the contrary, if there are contractors that broke the law, we have rules, and they'll have to deal with the full force of the law," he told the House of Commons.

There are strong links between Sauve, Varin and the Tories.

Sauve has said he helped with a fundraiser for the Conservatives in the Montreal-area riding of Bourassa in January 2009 — just months after winning the contract from Public Works. And Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, who was public works minister at the time of the fundraiser, attended the event.

Paradis confirmed Wednesday that he was present, but he insisted he didn't talk business with Sauve.

"Yes indeed, my riding organized a fundraiser and I attended as a political minister," Paradis said. "But at no time was any ministerial business discussed, it was purely a fundraiser."

Elections Canada records show that Sauve donated $1,100 on Jan. 26, 2009, to the Conservative riding association in Bourassa, and gave $1,000 to Tory candidate Hubert Pichet in La Pointe-de-l'Ile.

Sauve has been linked to the Hells Angels biker gang. Last year, Quebec newspaper La Presse quoted him as saying he hired a known member of the Hells Angels' Trois-Rivieres chapter to smooth out relations within Montreal's construction industry.

And a report by the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada — the federal watchdog agency better known as Fintrac — said Sauve took on an alleged Hells Angels member as a business partner in 2006.

Sauve could not immediately be reached for comment.

Varin has run afoul of lobbying laws before. He wasn't registered as a lobbyist in 1993 when he approached several Conservative cabinet ministers to help secure a bailout for charter airline Nationair. The Mounties opted against investigating that matter.

In 1977, Varin was fined $6,000 after a Quebec Court convicted him on five counts of corruption and breach of trust for his role in several kickback schemes.

A spokesman for Paradis said Varin has not been a member of the Conservative party, or the two parties that merged to form it, for at least a decade.

"He could have been a member before then, but up to the last 10 years he has not been," Richard Walker said.

However, Varin was a long-time Tory supporter and he donated to the party as recently as Jan. 26, 2009, giving $500 to the Conservative riding association in Bourassa. In November 2007, he gave $400 to the Tory riding association in Laurier—Sainte-Marie.

Liberal public works critic Geoff Regan said the whole thing "smells."

"According to these reports, there's clear evidence of abuse and corruption in the awarding of contracts and this raises questions like how extensive this is and how high does it go," he said.

"There certainly appears to be a pattern of Conservative insiders accessing ministers' offices. I mean, when you have an unregistered lobbyist getting $140,000 over two years for lobbying on one contract, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to find that totally wrong."

The Tories rode the Liberal sponsorship scandal into office and have hammered the Grits with it for years. Regan noted the similarities and said the Harper government "should go ahead and do what we did and call a public inquiry."

"The Conservatives walked into Ottawa on a horse named accountability and now it's a laugh line."

Regan suggested that the allegations of corruption may be linked to the fact that the West Block renovation is over budget and behind schedule.

"I think that's very much a question that has to be examined because it's a running joke around here how long it's taken the West Block work to be done."

Bankruptcy documents obtained by The Canadian Press reveal LM Sauve's liabilities totalled nearly $12 million at the time the papers were filed.

A bonding company has since taken over the contract from LM Sauve. The cost of the restoration work has increased by nearly $600,000 to $9.9 million since the project started.

— with files from Joan Bryden

 
 
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