It was December 2014, Denis Coderre had just celebrated his first anniversary as mayor of Montreal, and some embarrassing press coverage was getting under his skin.
First, there had been a TVA scoop that he used a police escort so he and his wife could get their picture taken with Corey Hart at the pop star’s farewell concert. Then TVA reported on a speeding ticket the mayor received.
Finally, La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé emailed city hall to check on a rumour that Coderre had avoided paying a $444 fine assessed in 2012 for not renewing his car registration.
Coderre acknowledged Monday after the Lagacé inquiry, he called “my chief of police” to complain about what he suspected were leaks from within the police department. He said he wanted to know whether the law had been broken.
The mayor’s call led to a criminal investigation for breach of trust and a warrant to obtain Lagacé’s phone record. Now, Coderre has been drawn directly into the growing Quebec scandal over police spying on journalists.
Coderre told 98.5 FM that his complaint to then-police chief, Marc Parent, was made as a citizen, not as the mayor.
“It’s Denis Coderre who was the victim in this matter,” he said, adding he felt that police rank-and-file, disgruntled with the state of labour relations, were tracking him.
He said he did not follow up with Parent and did not know until now that an investigation was launched to find the culprits. (To date, no officer has been charged over leaks.)
Opposition councillors were not buying Coderre’s explanation.
“To say he was simply acting as a citizen is worse than naiveté, worse than ignorance. It’s a failure, it’s a profound lack of judgment about his role as mayor,” Projet Montréal interim leader Luc Ferrandez said.
Since La Presse first reported a week ago that Montreal police obtained warrants in another case this year to monitor who was phoning Lagacé, Coderre has stood behind his current police chief, Philippe Pichet, saying those demanding Pichet step down are no better than a lynch mob.
The latest revelation has led to questions about how close Coderre is to police brass, who are supposed to be independent of political influence. He did not appoint Parent, who was chief in 2010-15, but he did appoint Pichet.
Alex Norris, a Projet Montréal councillor, said Coderre’s “political meddling in the operational affairs of a police force” was an affront to press freedom.
“He’s not a victim. The real victim is our democratic system of governance,” Norris said.
Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux stressed the importance Monday of maintaining a distance between politicians and police departments.
Last week, the province announced a public inquiry into reports of police spying on journalists. Coiteux said it will also examine the latest case involving Coderre.
The announcement of the inquiry followed the admission by the provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, that in 2013 it had obtained warrants to seize phone records of six investigative reporters.
As in the Coderre case, the SQ warrants followed an inquiry from a politician, then-public security minister, Stéphane Bergeron of the Parti Québécois, about suspected leaks to the media.
After initially saying he was aware of only one incident in which Montreal investigators obtained a warrant to obtain a reporter’s phone records, Pichet confirmed Thursday a second case involving an unidentified journalist had occurred in 2014. It was Lagacé who established he was the journalist in question.
He had been tipped off in 2014 that the police file on Coderre’s 2012 fine, incurred when he was a Liberal MP, carried the unusual code “non-existent.”
After being leaked a copy of the ticket and the computer record, and being unable to establish what the code meant, he emailed Coderre’s office to ask whether the fine had been paid. Eventually a senior officer told him it had and he dropped the story, unaware his email had sparked a criminal investigation.
Coderre said Monday he paid the fine, and his office said that occurred in July 2012.
In a statement, it added the leak of Coderre’s personal information was a serious infraction, but the police response was excessive.
“The mayor finds it unacceptable that such invasive methods were used against journalists,” it said.