Quebec lawyer Pierre-Paul Routhier says he was elected mayor of Chateauguay in November on a pledge to shake things up in the historic town.
But he’s the one being rattled by news stories and social media
attacks questioning the ethical optics — wrongly, he says — of his
legal work on behalf of clients who are fighting city halls in
Chateauguay and a neighbouring community.
“I know what I’m doing and what I should or should not be doing. But people are making statements and expressing negative opinions about me without the right information.”
The kerfuffle began earlier this month when a local newspaper reported that Routhier, a local businessman who went to law school at age 47 and returned to open a two-lawyer general practice in Chateauguay in 2002, was representing two high-profile local politicians who are embroiled in years of old legal cases with their municipalities.
One is former Chateauguay city councillor and local businessman Michel Gendron, who is fighting the legality of a motion presented by council to dismiss him from office over his refusal to complete an obligatory declaration of property, which all elected officials are required to do under Quebec’s Act respecting elections and referendums in municipalities.
According to Routhier, who successfully defended Gendron before Quebec’s Municipal Affairs Commission in 2014 but lost in Quebec Superior Court in 2016 — a decision that is under appeal and is expected to be heard in the Court of Appeal of Quebec in April — the issue revolves around his client’s refusal to declare a minority share in a building.
“If you are a shareholder in Sobeys, does that mean you are obligated to declare all of their grocery stores in Montreal?” Routhier asks rhetorically. “We want to see some clarity on this matter in the law.”
In the other case, Routhier is representing Gilles Pepin, a former mayor of the nearby town of Saint-Constant who was removed from office in 2013 after being charged with criminal offences by Quebec’s government anti-corruption agency, L'Unité permanente anticorruption, known as UPAC.
Those charges were withdrawn in 2015, one day, says Routhier, before preliminary hearings were set to begin.
Routhier is representing Pepin in his legal bid to be reimbursed $100,000 in legal fees from the municipality he once led — a provision that Routhier says is spelled out in Qeubec’s municipal law. That case is also expected to be heard in April in Quebec Superior Court.
Routhier says he will be present in both cases, though he will leave representations to his partner, Josiane Goulet, “out of respect for the courts, so I can answer any questions the judges may have.”
Last week, however, Montreal’s La Presse newspaper picked up the story, as did the province’s popular online publication for lawyers, Droit Inc.
Both stories highlighted the fact that Routhier’s legal fees in the Chateauguay case will be paid for by the same municipality that pays his mayor’s salary.
Several lawyers weighed in on the apparent ethical problems and conflicts of interest that arise from the situation.
“I have difficulty seeing how [Routhier] can negotiate a file with his litigator as mayor while pleading against his own administration,” Rino Soucy, a partner with Montreal’s Dufresne Hébert Comeau and co-author of a book on ethical and professional conduct for municipal politicians and employees, told La Presse (although he did not return calls from Canadian Lawyer).
“I think this is a flagrant case of conflict of interest. [Routhier] is wearing two hats at the same time.”
Marc-André LeChasseur, a partner with Montreal's Bélanger Sauvé, who practises mostly municipal and real estate law and who works for the town of Saint-Constant, which Pepin is suing, agrees. He even expressed those sentiments in a letter he sent to Routhier in November to congratulate him on his election victory and share his feelings that Routhier was crossing an ethical boundary.
"[Routhier] basically told me he was doing nothing wrong and [to] mind my own business,” says LeChasseur. “But to me he's thinking like a lawyer and separating his political and professional lives, so he doesn't see a problem. But on the face of it, there's a problem because he's giving people the impression he might be biased. There is a presumption and appearance of a conflict of interest. As a legal officer, that’s something we can’t afford.”
Martine Meilleur, a spokeswoman for the Quebec Bar, declined a request for comment in an email, saying the regulatory body “never pronounces on cases involving its members in order to preserve our objectivity in the event of an eventual disciplinary process.”
Nor did lawyers at any of Quebec’s five law faculties respond to requests for interviews on the subject.
That includes François Le Borgne, a law professor at the Université de Montréal, who until recently presided over the school’s committee on conflicts of interest. Le Borgne is also notably an independent city councillor in Chateauguay.
One lawyer who was willing to weigh in on the issue of conflicts of interest in municipal politics, though she was unfamiliar with Routhier’s case in particular, was Mireille Lemay.
According to Lemay, a Quebec City lawyer with Tremblay Bois Mignault Lemay, who specializes in municipal law and teaches an ethics course to newly elected municipal politicians, ethical and conflict questions and considerations under the dispositions of Quebec’s eight-year-old Municipal Ethics and Good Conduct Act need to be evaluated in the context in which they arise.
“There are certain grey areas, especially in small municipalities where people are close in the working and social and personal lives,” says Lemay. “A lot depends on the circumstances.”