The report that compelled Premier Jean Charest to call a public inquiry into corruption in the construction industry almost never saw the light of day because of government intransigence, according to its author, Jacques Duchesneau, former head of the province’s anti-collusion squad.
During his first day of testimony at the Charbonneau commission, Mr. Duchesneau said that the anti-collusion squad the Ministry of Transportation created in February, 2010, was given no budget, no offices and no real power to carry out its mandate.
The government appointed Mr. Duchesneau and his team after refusing for several months to call an inquiry into explosive allegations in the media and the National Assembly of price fixing and collusion in the awarding of contracts in a massive project to rebuild the province’s road system and bridges.
“The anti-collusion squad arrived like an unwanted baby and they scraped the bottom of drawers to find funds for our operations. ... During the 18 months I was there, we never received a working budget,” Mr. Duchesneau said.
Mr. Duchesneau told the inquiry his investigators worked from their homes, had no badges to impose their authority and were repeatedly stonewalled by senior Ministry of Transportation officials. In fact, he said, the government never even requested at the outset that he produce a report, and he took the initiative himself.
The former Montreal police chief said he was “insulted” when he was hired that the government asked him to sign an affidavit stating that he had no ties with organized crime and had conducted himself according to law when he ran for mayor of Montreal in 1998. He refused, and the request was withdrawn.
“I was ready to drop everything and go back to what I was doing before,” Mr. Duchesneau told the commission, adding that he believed creating the anti-collusion squad was an excellent thing to do.
Mr. Duchesneau said his mandate wasn’t to find criminals but to set up mechanisms to prevent corruption in the awarding of contracts by the Ministry of Transportation.
After three months, he said, his unit was at a dead end. The deputy minister of transportation refused to return his calls, documents his team requested weren’t being forwarded, inquiries could not progress. “We were going nowhere,” Mr. Duchesneau said. Finally, he said, the government awarded the unit power under the Public Inquiries Act, but asked him not to use it.
Nonetheless, he said, the status this gave his team of 10 investigators, retired senior police officers with a total of more than 400 years of experience, allowed them to uncover troubling practices in the industry. Entrepreneurs would speak only under the strict condition that their names be kept secret. People were simply afraid to talk, he said.
“We uncovered that the idea of healthy competition didn’t exist. People tried to work around the system,” he said. “A system of collusion was in place ... to get around the public tendering process.”
He said he began preparing a preliminary report for the fall of 2010 that underscored the infiltration of organized crime in the construction industry.
“I knew that the anti-collusion unit was the first step in a long voyage that would end with the naming of a commission [of inquiry],” Mr. Duchesneau explained.
Mr. Charest appointed the Charbonneau commission after Mr. Duchesneau’s last report, tabled a year later, which described corruption and collusion in the construction industry as well as connections to organized crime.
Mr. Duchesneau will outline the contents the fall of 2010 report when he resumes testifying on Thursday. Quebec Superior Court Judge France Charbonneau’s probe is examining allegations of corruption in the construction industry, the awarding of government contracts and the funding of political parties in Quebec.