Four big “Cs” of Quebec: Collusion, corruption, construction…and Charbonneau

Quebec’s “Charbonneau Commission” (la Commission Commission d’enquête sur l’octroi et la gestion des contrats publics dans l’industrie de la construction, (http://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/dossiers/commission-charbonneau/
Twitter feed #ceic) inquiring into collusion and corruption in the awarding of public contracts to the construction industry has exposed more dirt in its year of sittings than the bulldozers that excavated the “superhospital” sites, though its work is still incomplete and twelve of 30 witnesses since September have testified under publication bans due to trials yet to come.

As Justice France Charbonneau confirmed on adjourning the Commission for the holidays (http://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/dossiers/commission-charbonneau/201312/10/01-4719664-charbonneau-defend-les-temoignages-en-non-publication.php), hearings are open to the public even when publication is banned. Much of the testimony is available online, both in text (coverage in French in La Presse, Le Devoir and others, and less extensively in the English-language press) and recorded video (notably through Radio-Canada’s RDI and late-night excerpts and analysis on TV (when the English networks show reruns and infomercials).

Public interest was high to begin with since it took two years of pressure to get the then-Liberal government to start the inquiry despite (perhaps because of?) extensive exposure of collusion and corruption by the press. It has grown over time as the Commission has heard from municipal politicians and civil servants, construction contractors (with and without connections to the Mafia), union officials (with and without connections to biker gangs), and police investigating related crimes. Montreal lost two mayors, Laval its mayor and the party that ruled it for 28 years, and several mayors of smaller municipalities have been removed and charged with corruption and/or fraud.

Some colourful characters have become household names:
– “Monsieur TPS” Gilles Surprenant, responsible for the tender process in Montreal, nicknamed with the abbreviation for provincial sales tax reinterpreted to mean “tax for Surprenant” for the percentage he required off the top of municipal construction contracts
– “Monsieur Trottoir” (“Mr. Sidewalk”) whose hold on paving contracts was maintained through intimidation of those who dared bid against him
– Jean Lavallée, former head of the FTQ Construction union, who allegedly exerted illicit influence on the FTQ’s Solidarity investment fund and pulled financing from a firm which refused him a $250,000 bribe
– Jocelyn Dupuis, another senior FTQ official, who explained his odd use of union funds and closeness to criminal elements as due to belief in rehabilitation
and we cannot forget the video of “Mr. Socks” at his group’s favourite social club, tucking rolls of bills from a construction bagman into his socks for safekeeping.

Related issues have emerged to raise questions about how widespread the corruption really is.
– A former police witness, Benoit Roberge of UPAC, the provincial police Anti-corruption Squad, is now in jail, charged with having sold information to the Hell’s Angels.
– Montreal’s recently established police squad “protecting municipal integrity” (L’Escouade de protection de l’intégrité municipale) is now being integrated into the provincially-funded UPAC
(http://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/montreal/201312/10/01-4719648-lescouade-de-protection-de-lintegrite-municipale-integre-lupac.php) at the behest of the newly-elected mayor, formerly a federal politician for a party not untouched by allegations of corruption (suspect campaign contributions, dodgy contracts entailing kickbacks to the party, and dubious appointments to prominent positions…but there have been similar allegations concerning the other main federal party).
– Certain cabinet ministers of the previous (Liberal) Quebec government (who left office shortly before Justice Charbonneau was appointed to look into collusion and corruption) and some of its officials may not be entirely unconnected to the industry under investigation. Previous governments, including those of the Parti Quebecois now in power, have likewise awarded major contracts in less-than-transparent processes which may have involved quid-pro-quo arrangements. The objects of current UPAC investigations are not disclosed prematurely but raids are reported from time to time which hint at further revelations. (http://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/justice-et-affaires-criminelles/201312/10/01-4719478-perquisition-de-lupac-chez-suzanne-bibeau.php)
– The involvement of organized crime in the construction industry (and elsewhere) is quite obviously not confined to Quebec, let alone the municipal level. The organizations implicated here also have interests in neighbouring Ontario and the rivalry between Sicilian and Calabrian mobsters is well documented, as are certain names appearing in the lists of major campaign donors published as required by law.

The Charbonneau Commission, resuming after its holiday hiatus, has resumed with the testimony of a very reluctant witness. Michel Arsenault, former president of the FTQ and former president of its Solidarity Fund, prominently featured in wiretap evidence presented before the break, had done his best to have the courts exclude that evidence of his past behaviour but failed, and has himself been subpoenaed to testify before the commission. To date, his sometimes-longwinded explanations have failed to satisfy, though yesterday he generously allowed the commission to ask him anything …this week, since after that he has travel plans. It remains to be seen whether he can explain what his promise to talk to Pauline [Premiere Marois of the PQ] and arrange things with Claude [Blanchet, her spouse, a former executive at the Solidarity Fund] to prevent the current inquiry were about, if not an attempt to cover up shady dealings involving close friendships between Fund administrators and construction magnate Tony Accurso, deeply implicated in the illegalities under investigation. (Premiere Marois insists no such conversation ever took place; in fact, at the time in question, she was pressing the Charest government to call for a public inquiry. However, issues linking some members of the PQ to scandal have not yet been resolved.)

The Commission`s interim report, released today [January 28] states it is too early to draw conclusions from the inquiry. That may well be true in the legal sense, but the public may be forgiven for drawing its own conclusions. Given the testimony to date, the “a few bad apples” theory no longer holds water when it comes to relations between Quebec’s politico-social elite and the ethical conduct of the province’s business. This impression is not helped by today’s news that four former senior officers of Quebec’s provincial police are facing serious charges: illicitly paying themselves from the force’s fund for informants and operational travel may not be connected to corruption in the construction industry, but it certainly looks like corruption nonetheless.

The final report is expected towards the end of 2014. With charges already pending against multiple parties and many more expected, it is not yet clear that further collusion is out of the question now, nor that the Commissions limited mandate will expose all the abuses of the public purse and public confidence which have inflated costs by as much as 50% while leaving us with shoddy, badly-degraded infrastructure.
Still, Justice France Charbonneau has proven her merits in the course of these hearings, notably a genuine interest in finding the truth and the sense of humour required to cope with certain witness statements, and we look forward to final recommendations from her Commission. We can only hope that similar efforts will help clean up some of the mess in other industries and jurisdictions.

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