Jean Charest is refusing to cave in to pressure for a public inquiry into corruption in the construction industry, despite new evidence of wrongdoing and a strong pitch from the head of the Quebec Transport Ministry’s anti-collusion unit.
The Premier, whose Liberals hold a majority in the National Assembly, called the proposal from Jacques Duchesneau “vague” and “complex.” He said his government would “seriously examine” the proposal but that any decision would have to take into account three criteria.
“First, we must make sure that we don’t interfere with the on-going [police]investigations and [protect]the evidence that is being accumulated,” Mr. Charest said Wednesday in the National Assembly. “Secondly, we have to make sure people are brought before justice, and thirdly we have to protect the victims. Those are the principles that will guide us.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Duchesneau made the case for a two-pronged inquiry. He said the first phase should be held behind closed doors to protect the victims of corruption and the identities of those who want to speak out. The second phase should be a public inquiry to hear experts explain how the illegal system of cartels and bid-rigging operates.
During his testimony before a National Assembly committee, Mr. Duchesneau gave several examples of collusion and corrupt practices involving construction companies and engineering firms, based on more than 500 interviews during an 18-month investigation. He insisted that his report was based on facts, not allegations.
For instance, engineering firms control and oversee 100 per cent of the ministry’s road-building projects in Montreal, he said. And the Mafia has taken over several road construction sites. Mr. Duchesneau also explained that contractors and workers were being paid in cash amounts, with individuals arriving on construction sites each Friday with suitcases filled with as much as $100,000 in bills obtained at foreign exchange offices.
He said police investigations were not enough to eliminate corruption, and argued that a public inquiry was urgently needed to end the elaborate system of collusion, influence peddling and illegal funding of political parties tied to the billions of dollars in road-building contracts.
Mr. Duchesneau’s revelations failed to convince Mr. Charest. And after discussions during Wednesday’s weekly cabinet meeting, ministers expressed little enthusiasm in holding the type of inquiry Mr. Duchesneau proposed.
“We are examining what decision we need to take,” said Public Security Minister Robert Dutil. “It will take as long as necessary.”
The Liberal government failed to see the urgency to launch a probe as soon as possible. “We have put in place the mechanisms to get to the bottom of this, so let’s give them time to do their work,” said International Affairs Minister Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, in reference to the permanent anti-corruption squad that was created earlier this year to crack down on the construction industry.
The Charest government appeared to be hoping that over time it can turn public opinion in its favour, based on remarks by Mr. Duchesneau that his investigation had failed to uncover any political interference in the awarding of government contracts.
However, Mr. Duchesneau remained adamant. In several media interviews on Wednesday, he reiterated the need to hold a public inquiry. He added that he will not seek to extend his mandate when it comes to term next year.
“To accept another mandate from a government that I have criticized would amount to diluting the content of my report,” Mr. Duchesneau said.