Jurors sequestered at Jacques Corriveau fraud trial in Montreal

The fate of a man once described as a "central figure'' in the federal sponsorship scandal was placed in the hands of a jury Thursday as deliberations began in Jacques Corriveau's fraud trial.

Earlier, the trial judge told the eight men and four women on the jury they must decide whether the ex-federal Liberal organizer knowingly used his influence to secure himself millions of dollars in kickbacks between 1997 and 2003.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Francois Buffoni told them in his final instructions they must wade through the evidence carefully.

Corriveau, who was a close associate of ex-prime minister Jean Chretien and worked on his Liberal leadership campaigns, is charged with fraud against the government, forgery and laundering proceeds of crime.

The Crown alleged Corriveau, 83, set up a kickback system on government contracts awarded during the sponsorship program and used his Pluri Design Canada Inc. firm to defraud Ottawa.

But as Corriveau and his wife watched in the courtroom, Buffoni told the jurors that, to convict him, they must conclude he was not only influential but that he deliberately wielded his influence to secure some $6.5 million in ``advantages and benefits'' for himself.

"Did Mr. Corriveau know the benefits or advantages were in return for his influence?'' Buffoni asked the jury. 

"If you're not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, you must find him not guilty.''

During the trial, the defence argued that while Corriveau may have held sway with prominent members of the Liberal party, the Crown had failed to prove he used his position to secure any contracts.

The Crown accused him of facilitating sponsorship contracts that went to Groupe Polygone-Expour for the production of various publications and the organization of outdoor shows, while allegedly pocketing millions of dollars for himself.

But defence lawyers said the testimony of key witnesses, including former Polygone president Luc Lemay, was unreliable and that the evidence failed to prove the contracts were awarded or renewed based on Corriveau's influence.

Corriveau did not take the stand at the trial, which began in mid-September.

The ex-Liberal organizer is also charged with falsifying documents, including invoices and service contracts, in order to legitimize the deals. He also faces a money-laundering charge.

The sponsorship program was intended to increase the federal government's presence in Quebec after the No side's slim victory in the 1995 sovereignty referendum.

The Gomery Commission, which looked into the program, found that firms were winning contracts based on donations to the federal Liberals, with little work being done.

Corriveau testified in 2005 at the inquiry and maintained his innocence.

Justice John Gomery made it clear, however, he was unconvinced, and his report laid much of the blame for the scandal on Corriveau.

"Jacques Corriveau was the central figure in an elaborate kickback scheme by which he enriched himself personally and provided funds and benefits to the (Quebec wing of the Liberal party),'' Gomery wrote.

Corriveau, who was considered one of the highest-ranking federal Liberals in Quebec at one time, was charged in late 2013 after a wide-ranging 11-year investigation.

Speaking on Thursday, Corriveau's lawyer said the jury's job is complicated by the fact that although his client was ``close to the higher-ups'' in the party there is "no direct evidence'' to show he peddled his influence for personal gain.

"It's circumstantial evidence that all has to point to one thing, the guilt of the accused, in order to find him guilty,'' Gerald Souliere said outside the courtroom.

He acknowledged the jury ``might be wondering'' why his client did not take the stand, but reminded reporters it was the right of the accused to testify or not.

The eight men and four women on the jury were sequestered after Buffoni finished delivering his instructions.

Their deliberations will resume Friday and continue until they reach a unanimous verdict on each charge.