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Mudslinging continues on Quebec election trail

MONTREAL - The absence of Quebec political leaders on the campaign trail Thursday did little to stop the mudslinging as parties took turns attacking Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard over an offshore account he once possessed.

The parties attacked Couillard after Radio-Canada reported Wednesday that he placed money in an offshore tax haven while practising as a neurosurgeon in Saudi Arabia well before embarking on his political career.

Couillard said there was nothing illegal about the account at a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada based in Jersey, in the Channel Islands between England and France.

In a statement, Couillard said he used the account while working in the Middle East in the 1990s. Many of his Canadian colleagues in Saudi Arabia, also non-residents, had similar setups. Couillard said he paid taxes on the interest upon his return to Canada. The account was transferred to his ex-wife following a divorce in 2000 and is no longer in his possession.

While the account was not illegal, the parties zeroed in on the moral implications of having such an account.

Couillard, the perceived election front-runner according to polls, was hit with a number of stinging rebukes. As he and other party leaders hunkered down ahead of the last televised debate before the April 7 election, it was up to other candidates to step up the attacks.

Parti Quebecois candidate Bernard Drainville insisted he should have paid taxes while abroad given that Quebec taxpayers helped to pay for his medical training in in the province.

"It's true, Philippe Couillard didn't do anything illegal, but the facts say a lot about his ethical and moral values," Drainville told a news conference.

"He knew that as a foreigner, he wouldn't pay taxes in Saudi Arabia, but he could have kept his bank accounts open in Quebec, transferred the money from his Saudi Arabian salary and paid taxes like everyone else."

Drainville was asked about his own time abroad. The former Radio-Canada journalist was stationed in Mexico City as the organization's Latin American correspondent between 2001 and 2003. Drainville assured he'd paid taxes, but was short on details.

"I paid my taxes, I don't know if I paid them to the Mexican government or to the Canadian and Quebec governments, but I paid my taxes and I didn't put my money in a tax haven," he replied.

In Saguenay, Quebec solidaire's Amir Khadir questioned Couillard's "wilful blindness" and wondered whether it was reasonable to entrust him with running the province.

The Coalition for Quebec's Future's Francois Bonnardel said Couillard displayed a "flagrant lack of ethics" in the matter.

But the Liberals defended their leader from the barrage of attacks, saying Couillard was more than transparent.

Party candidate Martin Coiteux said Couillard, who had severed ties with Canada while in Saudi Arabia, was above board in his financial dealings.

"The majority of people who work abroad deposit their money abroad," Coiteux said. "If I had worked abroad, it would be odd that I deposit sums in Canada. If I'm not a resident of Canada, I put my money in a foreign account. That's how it works."

Meanwhile, a former Liberal fundraiser broke his silence about $428,150 in party financing that still remains unaccounted for.

Marc Bibeau issued a statement late Wednesday saying there was no way that amount was raised at a single Liberal event. Bibeau has largely remained silent amid an investigation by the UPAC anti-corruption unit into the Liberals and some of his companies.

Bibeau says he hasn't been able to see UPAC's documents, where the figure first surfaced. But he said categorically the amount could not have come from a single event.

"On the contrary, this sum most likely represents a culmination of personal donations given to the Liberal Party of Quebec over a period of several months, which were individually recorded in its books and this in compliance with the laws," the statement read.

The Liberals have said they'll leave it to UPAC to get to the bottom of the issue. The PQ has filed a complaint with Quebec's electoral office over the missing money.

On the issue of transparency, Coiteux said the only person who hadn't shown any is PQ Leader Pauline Marois.

However, Marois posted a summary of her 2012 tax return on the PQ website just before she was about to go into the second of two leaders' debates on TV Thursday evening. Her husband's return was not made public.

While all other party leaders agreed to make their financial situations public, Marois had initially resisted calls to do so, saying she had already filed her paperwork with the province's ethics commissioner.

Coalition Leader Francois Legault had also not made his records public as of late Thursday, but has promised to do so before the election.

Couillard and Francoise David of Quebec solidaire revealed their numbers in Thursday's edition of Montreal La Presse.

Couillard's personal assets are worth just more than $667,000, while those of his wife, Suzanne Pilotte, are worth $656,963.

Couillard declared income of $201,952.61 in 2012 and paid $42,066.35 in federal and provincial income tax. He and his wife paid $6,291.26 in property taxes.

Marois declared income of $160,733 and paid $56,009.00 in federal and provincial income tax. She got a total of $3,417.OO in refunds on both returns.

In releasing the documents, Marois said in a statement she had always complied with the requirements of the ethics commissioner and said she was also releasing the income tax summary in response to requests.

"As regards to the financial assets held by my husband, Claude Blanchet and me, they are in a blind trust where the manager has the discretion of management. This is a portfolio of shares of public companies in which we do not have a significant interest as well as bonds and cash.

"Finally, we have always paid our taxes to the government of Quebec and the federal government and we have never had a bank account in a tax haven," she said.

David declared income of $64,984.99 in 2012 and paid $8,866.53 in federal and provincial income tax. Her property tax bill checked in at $1,921.72.

— With a file from Canadian Press reporter Nelson Wyatt

Follow (at)sidhartha_b @nelsonwyatt on Twitter

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