Charbonneau Commission set to tackle corruption in construction
Published Wednesday, October 19, 2011 10:31PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 20, 2012 10:31AM EDT
The woman who put away Hells Angels boss Maurice "Mom" Boucher is now being called upon to tackle a far bigger foe: corruption in Quebec's multibillion-dollar construction industry and its ties to politics and organized crime.
Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau has been given a two-year mandate to wade through the web of corruption that has reportedly ensnared many of the province's institutions.
She was the prosecutor who won a murder trial in 2002 against the once-powerful Boucher.
Her appointment Wednesday earned praise from none other than John Gomery, a former colleague who presided over the famous federal sponsorship inquiry: "She's an excellent judge," Gomery told The Canadian Press.
"That's a very good choice. I have only praise for her."
Charbonneau's new mandate requires her to produce a final report by October 2013 -- almost certainly after the next provincial election -- although she can table interim reports before then.
The limit to Charbonneau's power has become a source of instant controversy. There was angry opposition reaction Wednesday and one Montreal newspaper columnist dismissively declared his references to a "public inquiry" would come with quotation marks.
Charbonneau will certainly face handicaps Gomery did not.
Her mandate does not actually stem from the provincial law on public inquiries, which grants sweeping powers to subpoena witnesses and offer legal immunity in exchange for testimony.
Charbonneau, a judge since 2004, will not be able to compel witnesses to testify. Nor will she be able to entice them to appear by offering legal immunity for any incriminating testimony.
Key parts of the inquiry will be held behind closed doors.
That means that if a parade of witnesses testifies about underworld influence, there will not likely be any TV images to tantalize viewers watching the evening news.
Those conditions dominated the news conference where Premier Jean Charest announced the inquiry then faced a testy exchange with reporters.
"We did not improvise," Charest replied.
"Serious thought was put into this."
Charest said the procedures were specifically designed to protect ongoing police investigations and ensure any evidence gathered won't be thrown out of court. Since the testimony would not be obtained under coercion it could later be used in criminal proceedings, the government said.
When asked whether he would appear if called to testify, the premier said, "Yes."
The inquiry announcement came after two years of persistent reports of corruption involving the construction industry, political parties and crime groups like the Mafia.
These actors are all participants in a multi-faceted scheme that allegedly stuffs the coffers of gangs, political parties and construction companies -- but fleeces Quebec taxpayers.
Analysts have cited such malfeasance as one reason the province spends as much as one-third extra per construction project than other jurisdictions.
Charest met with his cabinet on Wednesday before making the announcement. He also spent several hours behind closed doors with his caucus Tuesday, outlining the details of his plan.
Demands for an inquiry ramped up in 2009. But until recently, Charest had brushed aside the requests.
He said the problems were being addressed by 15 policy changes he had made, including the creation of a new anti-corruption unit and the introduction of reforms to political financing and municipal contracting.
The premier's opponents were criticizing Charest even before the official inquiry announcement.
Charest had been hinting strongly that the juiciest part of any probe -- the portion with testimony on criminal schemes -- would be held behind closed doors.
This stemmed from a proposal by the provincial anti-collusion crusader Jacques Duchesneau. He's the author of the explosive report that was recently leaked to the media, which intensified the pressure on Charest.
But the Opposition says what Quebecers want is a public, transparent, wide-ranging inquiry.
Now the Parti Quebecois is promising to hold its own inquiry within 100 days of taking office. The next provincial vote could be held as early as next spring, although Charest can legally wait until December 2013 to call the election.
The PQ is encouraging Liberals to stage a mutiny against their leader. The governing party has a convention next weekend and some suspect Wednesday's announcement was timed to quell dissension in the ranks.
"Rise up!" Marois told a news conference, addressing the Liberal rank-and-file.
"Stand up against this code of silence... There will be a (real) public inquiry -- sooner or later," she promised.
Earlier in the day, Charest said his opponents would be impossible to please.
"The leader of the official Opposition is demonstrating that, whatever the government does, she'll simply disagree," he told the legislature.
"But she could at least tell us, because I'm asking for the third time: ...Does she agree that we should protect evidence, the ability to lay charges and protect witnesses?"
The inquiry judge will have to choose two commissioners to assist her in her task.
Charbonneau's mandate allows her to investigate the construction industry, political party financing and organized crime since 1996.
That 15-year span covers eight years of Charest government -- he was first elected in 2003 -- and almost the entire reign of the previous PQ government.
The period begins one year after the referendum on Quebec independence which, sovereigntists have long maintained, was rife with fiscal rule-bending.
Leaked report an added push
A recent poll by Leger Marketing indicates that 77 per cent of Quebecers want an inquiry.
However, Premier Jean Charest had up until now preferred to let police investigate allegations of corruption. Earlier this year, he announced the creation of UPAC, a permanent anti-corruption unit formed of police officers and prosecutors.
It was only after the release of an explosive report into how Transport Quebec has allegedly been taken advantage of by construction firms and criminal organizations that Charest finally suggested he would be willing to launch an inquiry.
In September, Jacques Duchesneau, who has been leading the team looking into corruption within the Transportation Ministry, leaked the report confirming ties between organized crime and construction firms, along with widespread collusion among companies bidding for contracts, and a weak civil service unwilling to ensure companies stayed on budget.
Duchesneau also proposed holding an inquiry behind closed doors, partly to prevent a media circus, but also to ensure it would not disrupt police investigations.
"We pretty well know that the population wants to have more light on those problems," said Dutil on Wednesday morning before going into a cabinet meeting.
Meetings began Tuesday
Rumours of the inquiry announcement began the day before, as the provincial Liberal party began its regular caucus meeting earlier than normal, ostensibly in order to hold a discussion about how the government plans to launch an inquiry into allegations of corruption in the construction industry.
It wrapped up at 10 a.m., and several members of Premier Jean Charest's 'inner cabinet' launched into a second meeting.
Dutil, along with Transport Minister Pierre Moreau, Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, and Deputy Premier Line Beauchamp took part in that meeting.
A Liberal party convention takes place this weekend.
Gomery applauds inquiry
Canada's most famous inquiry judge is applauding the news that there will be a corruption inquiry in Quebec.
Justice John Gomery told The Canadian Press that he welcomes reports a public inquiry will be announced Wednesday afternoon by Premier Jean Charest.
Gomery said he has believed, for several months now, that there needed to be a probe into alleged corruption in Quebec, which is his home province.
"I've thought that calling a public inquiry would be a good idea to satisfy the public's need to know more about what's been going on in our construction industry," he said in a phone interview.
"I think it would be good for the province and for the population and for public sentiment in general."
Gomery presided over an inquiry into the federal sponsorship scam -- which, in terms of the dollar amounts involved, is a drop in the bucket compared to the alleged schemes taking place in Quebec.
With files from ctvmontreal.ca