For the second year in a row, Quebec’s National Assembly is immersed in a vicious debate over corruption in the construction industry.
Opposition parties, as well as the majority of Quebeckers, call for a public inquiry. Premier Jean Charest steadfastly refuses to hold one. Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois accuses Mr. Charest of protecting organized crime, but when she was asked about the substantial donations she received from large engineering firms during her 2007 leadership campaign, she said it didn’t matter since she wasn’t in office. As if a future Official Opposition leader wasn’t poised to eventually run the government and oversee the awarding of large contracts!
The atmosphere of suspicion is such that all engineering firms and all contributors to political parties (especially to the Liberal Party, which is closer to big business) are seen as involved in influence-peddling, and that all contractors and building companies are painted as linked to organized crime. The problem is that, apart from the scandals unearthed by investigative journalists, what’s floating around is mostly made up of allegations rather than hard facts.
This is the case of the latest bombshell on the issue: a preliminary report from the Quebec Transport Ministry’s anti-collusion squad that was leaked to the media. The report, which outlines a “firmly rooted, clandestine universe of an unexpected scale” that threatens the foundation of our society, mentions the enduring presence of organized crime in the construction industry, the Transport Ministry’s lack of expertise, and collusion between engineering firms, contractors and civil servants, with the result that Quebec taxpayers are being defrauded of millions of dollars every year – and for badly done work to boot, as one can see by the lamentable state of our bridges, roads and overpasses.
Unfortunately, the report contains no names, and no specific cases of corruption that could lead to formal accusations. It describes a system whose general outlines are already well-known, and it’s hard to see a cure on the horizon, even though dozens of detectives hired by two agencies set up by the government to look into the fraud allegations have been at work for months.
The anti-collusion squad ( Unité anticollusion), created in February of 2010, is headed by Jacques Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief. The task force, made up of 19 seasoned former police officers (including Mounties), worked as a relatively independent unit under the Transport Ministry but has since been absorbed by the permanent anti-corruption unit ( Unité permanente anticorruption), an investigative agency set up last March that is an extension of the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force that never got along with either the Montreal police or the RCMP.
Not only is the Sûreté du Québec considered traditionally soft on politicians, but the head of the anti-corruption unit is a former deputy minister of the public security minister to whom it reports. The first thing this unit did after the merger was to require that Mr. Duchesneau’s officers, all of whom were hired on contract, take the entrance exams of the provincial civil service. That stupid decision has been reversed, but the anti-collusion squad is disgusted and some of its members are thinking of resigning.
The leaking of the anti-collusion squad’s report might very well be linked to the feud between that squad and the anti-corruption unit. Those involved in the construction corruption schemes, meanwhile, are probably laughing out loud.