QUEBEC — A longtime Liberal member of the Quebec legislature stepped away from the party on Thursday following his arrest by the province's anti-corruption unit.
Guy Ouellette, 65, was arrested in connection with an investigation by the unit, known as UPAC, into an important information leak to the media last April, a government source told The Canadian Press.
In a statement, the Liberals said Ouellette would step aside temporarily pending the outcome of proceedings involving the province's director of criminal and penal prosecutions.
Ouellette, a former organized crime investigator turned politician, has represented the riding of Chomedey, north of Montreal, since 2007.
The anti-corruption unit explained it executed six warrants in an investigation targeting breach of trust and obstruction of justice.
The unit said officers made an arrest "to secure evidence and to prevent the offences from continuing or recurring."
UPAC said it wouldn't identify anyone implicated because no charges have yet been filed.
Radio-Canada reported that UPAC investigators tricked Ouellette into a meeting by sending him a text from the phone of a retired police officer.
Sources told the network the investigators seized the officer's phone as part of the probe into the information leaks and contacted Ouellette, using the pretext the officer was getting ready to reveal what he knew to a local newspaper.
Premier Philippe Couillard cancelled events in northern Quebec on Thursday to be at the legislature for a special caucus meeting and to attend question period.
Couillard said Ouellette was right to step aside, but said he didn't have any further details for the gaggle of reporters outside the Liberal meeting room.
The premier said he was in a hotel room in Chibougamau on Wednesday when a staffer informed him of news of the arrest, which was first reported by Montreal La Presse.
While Couillard hadn't spoken to Ouellette directly as of Thursday morning, Liberal caucus chair Filomena Rotiroti said she was shaken when Ouellette told her he was withdrawing from caucus.
"Guy has always been a team player and while light is shed on the matter, he took a decision to step aside," Rotiroti said, standing alongside Couillard.
Couillard said the shock extends to all political parties but added that Ouellette's departure won't destabilize his government.
"It surprises us, it saddens us, but it doesn't deviate us from the plan," Couillard said.
Ouellette's arrest is allegedly linked to a UPAC probe called Machurer, which looked into suspected illegal financing within the Liberal party under former leader Jean Charest.
UPAC has been investigating leaks from within its own organization.
A leak last April revealed UPAC had been investigating the comings and goings of ex-premier Charest and Liberal fundraiser Marc Bibeau up until 2016.
A news organization published emails dating from 2011 between Bibeau, Jean-Louis Dufresne, the former chief of staff to Premier Philippe Couillard, and Hugo d'Amour, a spokesperson for Charest. The emails showed the men discussed a contract to repair a Montreal-area bridge.
Ouellette came out publicly in April to denounce the major information leak, which proved embarrassing to the Liberals.
He said at the time he was "disgusted by the situation, disgusted by all these leaks, disgusted by all these conflicts of interest."
Ouellette was head of the legislature committee that recently held hearings into the leaks.
The reactions from Quebec politicians were mostly measured.
"I don't know if there was an arrest or just questioning," said Parti Quebecois public security critic Pascal Berube.
"I saw the images that show police officers entering Mr. Ouellette's residence in Quebec City.
"Until I know what he's accused of, I don't want to speculate any further. I don't want to condemn a fellow member."
Quebec solidaire member Amir Khadir expressed support for Ouellette, who he described as a possible whistleblower.
"Guy Ouellette must know this morning that he has my respect and my support," Khadir said. "I have no reason to doubt his integrity, his honesty."
UPAC should be focusing less on "hunting sources" and more on bringing down those responsible for the alleged illegal Liberal fundraising, Khadir added.