08/06/2012 08:00 EDT | Updated 10/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Liberals should have blocked resale of land, PQ says

A trio of Parti Québécois candidates tried to wrest the anti-corruption banner from the Coalition Avenir Québec and star candidate Jacques Duchesneau Monday, with charges that the Liberal government should have prevented the resale of south shore land by a family foundation in 2008.

While PQ leader Pauline Marois campaigned on Îles-de-la-Madeleine Monday, back in Montreal Chambly candidate Bertrand St-Arnaud, Marie-Victorin's Bernard Drainville and Gouin's Nicolas Girard called a news conference to make public allegations first published in the local Brossard newspaper Éclair in Sept. 2009.

The PQ accused former Education Minister Michelle Courchesne of signing off on a deal in 2008 to allow the Frank Catania Foundation to purchase Brossard land owned by the Riverside School Board for $600,000, which the PQ said was far below market value.

The land was to be turned into a community centre, but less than a year later the land was sold to another developer for $1.8 million for a 41-unit condominium complex.

After the community project fell through, the Liberal government "should have asked that the property be returned to the public treasury,'' charged Drainville. "It is not normal...that the Catania Foundation is making a million bucks in less than a year, while our school boards are crying for money, and the south shore community is asking for a new community centre."

Asked about her candidates' allegations later in the day in Chandler, on the Gaspé peninsula, Marois admitted to reporters there was nothing illegal in the land sale.

"But between you and me, is there not something a bit questionable about the fact that land was given up for one end and then used for something else?" Marois asked. "There are rules to respect as far as tenders go."

Catania head charged last May

The 2008 land deal is not the first time the Catania name has come up in connection to a sweetheart land deal.

In 2007, Montreal's Housing and Development Corporation sold land to Construction Frank Catania & Associates Inc. for about $4 million even though its market value was $31 million. The sale resulted in a $5-million loss for the city, according to an auditor's report.

The head of the construction firm, Paolo Catania, was arrested in May 2012 and charged with fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust.

Liberals deny wrongdoing

Liberal Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, who is not seeking re-election, called the accusations "astonishing" in a news release late Monday.

According to the news release, the Riverside School Board received the education ministry's go-ahead to sell a school property for $2,445,900 in Nov. 2003. The school board received six offers to buy the property — the highest bid was $600,000.

It was at that point that the non-profit foundation indicated its interest in acquiring the school and matched the best offer, which the government authorized in Dec. 2007.

"The transaction respected all rules and conditions pertaining to the sale of a school board building," the news release stated.

The Liberal Party said contrary to what the PQ candidates suggested, the foundation received no subsidy for the project, because it never signed an agreement with the municipal affairs ministry to proceed with the community centre.

The news release also said money made by any foundation — regardless of whose family name is attached to it — must, by law, be redistributed in the community.

PQ: $100 limit on party donations

The PQ appears determined to try to wrestle back from the CAQ the anti-corruption issue, after having the wind knocked from its sails with the announcement Sunday the former head of the anti-corruption squad, Jacques Duchesneau, will run for the CAQ in St- Jerôme.

"To eradicate corruption, one man is not enough," said Girard, flanked by St-Arnaud and Drainville. "You need a whole team."

The PQ reiterated a commitment released in its party platform on the weekend, saying to stop influence-peddling, it would limit individual political donations to $100 annually, with no tax credit.

Coalition Avenir Québec has also promised to put in place a $100 limit on donations, down from the current $1000 limit.

"The PQ is just copying what we did," charged Duchesneau.