Alfonso Gagliano, a former Liberal cabinet minister and one of the central players in the sponsorship scandal, has died at the age of 78.

As public works minister under then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, Gagliano was in charge of a program to increase the federal government’s visibility in Quebec following the 1995 referendum on the province’s sovereignty.

Gagliano, who immigrated to Canada when he was 16, had represented east-end Montreal ridings since the 1980s and was Chrétien’s chief political organizer in Quebec.

But the sponsorship program ended in controversy in 2003 as it emerged that roughly $100 million in government contracts went to advertising agencies and public relations firms that were friendly to the Liberal Party.

Gagliano was ambassador to Denmark when a damning auditor general’s report confirmed media reports about widespread spending irregularities in the program.

Chrétien’s successor, Paul Martin, dismissed Gagliano and launched a public inquiry into the growing scandal.

That inquiry concluded that Gagliano was pressuring bureaucrats to steer contracts to select firms, some of which returned the money to the Liberal Party in the form of donations.

The scandal badly damaged the party’s reputation, especially in Quebec, and contributed to the electoral success of the Bloc Québécois in the 2000s.

Gagliano always denied wrongdoing and — unlike several other players in the scandal — was never charged with a crime. He blamed Martin for ruining his career and damaging the party. 

“He destroyed me,” Gagliano said of Martin in 2006, after publishing a memoir that tried to offer a different narrative of his role in the scandal.

“It destroyed my political career, and I think my reputation has been destroyed,” he added at the time. “It’s been tough for the family. But I have a strong family, and we bonded over this hard time.”

In 2008, Gagliano purchased a vineyard in Quebec’s bucolic Eastern Townships. The winery that bears his name has produced several award-winning wines in recent years.  

His daughter, Imma Gagliano, vice-president of the winery, said he died on Saturday.

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