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Ex-Quebec transport minister grilled on decision to build $20-million road

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MONTREAL - A longtime Parti Quebecois cabinet minister vehemently denied Friday he accepted money in exchange for political favours.

Guy Chevrette wrapped up his testimony at the Charbonneau Commission amid continued examination of allegations against him.

Gilles Cloutier, a former political organizer and engineering firm executive, alleged in 2013 that $100,000 went to Gilles Beaulieu, a friend of Chevrette's, supposedly for access to the minister.

Cloutier alleged the payment was split between a businessman and the engineering firm Roche for help in securing a $20-million road contract in St-Donat, north of Montreal.

He testified that he heard the money was earmarked for a vacation planned by Chevrette — a statement the former transport minister flatly denied Friday.

"I never asked for money from anyone, I never asked someone else to go and get money from someone else," said Chevrette, who was transport minister between 1998 and 2002.

"I never received any money from anyone else and, in passing, Roche (Cloutier's firm) never offered me anything."

Coincidentally, Chevrette did take a 100-day vacation in 2002 after his retirement, with Beaulieu, which inquiry counsel said cost almost $100,000 in total.

But Chevrette vehemently denied the money for the holiday came from a kickback.

He said the trip cost him and his wife a total of $49,200, a sum that included a $25,000 gift from the PQ in honour of his quarter-century of service.

Chevrette was adamant that, as a sitting minister, he could not have planned or taken a 100-day trip. Chevrette maintained that response when commission chair France Charbonneau asked him a second time if anyone had paid for any trips during his time in politics.

He accused Cloutier of lying and skewing facts to fabricate the vacation story.

That was a common theme as the fiery ex-politician took more shots at Cloutier, who worked in business development for Roche and then Dessau.

Chevrette called Cloutier's testimony about him a pack of lies. On Friday, he said he hardly knew Cloutier and had to ask a journalist to show him a picture. He sarcastically called Cloutier a "star witness" and continuously referred to him as "your friend" when addressing the inquiry counsel.

"What Cloutier says is not true, it's another lie and they're accumulating," Chevrette said at one point.

Chevrette admitted he received gifts like wine and sports tickets, but couldn't recall details. One hockey night came from the asphalt company that received the St-Donat contract, but Chevrette maintained there was no link between sports tickets and the awarding of public contracts.

He defended the St-Donat contract from the early 2000s, calling it a strictly political decision.

There was already a road in place between St-Donat and Lac-Superieur. Transport Department official Mario Turcotte testified the new contract wasn't considered a priority but that Chevrette's office had insisted it go through.

Chevrette said he pushed ahead with the 31-kilometre rural road in 2001 to help a region facing economic hardships. It was completed in 2003, after he'd retired, and is little-used today.

He denied there were any irregularities in the tendering process and maintained he was never informed by department bureaucrats the road should not be built.

Chevrette said 3,000 people had signed a petition in favour of it.

"I was elected to make decisions," he said. "Who is going to make them if I don't?"

The former cabinet minister also complained about having to wait a year to respond to Cloutier's claims.

Charbonneau sought to set the record straight, telling Chevrette he had been offered a chance to meet with investigators and had refused until recently.

Chevrette, now 74, ended his 25-year political career after being unhappy with a cabinet shuffle.

He is one of at least two former transport ministers expected to appear. Former Liberal transport minister and current backbencher Julie Boulet has also been subpoenaed.

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