Transport Minister Denis Lebel has asked his top bureaucrat to investigate whether a federal bridge agency improperly received gifts from a major Quebec construction firm.
It's the first time the Conservative government has said publicly it is taking action on something raised at the Charbonneau commission into municipal and provincial contract corruption in Quebec.
Earlier this month, a witness mentioned to the provincial inquiry she had sent gifts to Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridge Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Federal Bridge Corp. Ltd.
Ghislaine Dujmovic of DJL Construction said the company gave certificates to a spa in the Laurentians, bottles of wine, car emergency kits or other gifts to figures in the City of Montreal, the Quebec transportation department and the federal bridge firm every year at Christmas.
The administrative assistant said the practice was in place before she took it over in the late 1990s, and ended around 2008. The list of gift recipients was first reviewed by different project managers, and certain officials got better gifts than others.
Dujmovic declined to elaborate on the gifts to the bridge corporation when contacted by The Canadian Press.
DJL Construction has been awarded eight contracts worth $12-million between 2008-2012 through a competitive public tender process, according to Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridge Inc.
Spokesman Jean-Vincent Lacroix said the federal firm is unaware of any of its employees receiving gifts from DJL between 1998 and 2008, although staff turnover made it difficult to know for sure.
"After doing some verification, I also understand that there was a past informal tradition during the holiday season when greeting cards were sometimes accompanied by a bottle of wine," said Lacroix, adding that there was no register for those gifts.
Lebel's office said that the minister has asked his deputy minister to investigate the matter and ensure adherence to ethics rules.
"The expected behaviour for all public servants is clearly outlined in the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector," said Lebel's spokesman, Michael Winterburn.
"These standards are taken very seriously and they apply to everyone across the federal government, including employees of Crown corporations.
"If corrections need to be made, we will take the necessary measures."
The new ethics code says public servants must act "at all times with integrity and in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that may not be fully satisfied by simply acting within the law."
A similar line appears in the corporation's conflict-of-interest code for administrators.
It also says "an executive should not solicit or accept an economic advantage other than customary gifts, tokens of hospitality or other benefits of low value, except in the case of executory contractual rights, or by virtue of a property right of the administrator(/director)."
That code also prohibits executives from attending any political events, but in 2009 two of the corporation's five directors attended a Conservative fundraiser in Montreal featuring Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Board president Paul Kefalas and director Serge Martel were at the $150-a-ticket event, which was also attended by several executives from engineering firms that would shortly thereafter bid on a multimillion-dollar contract on Montreal's Champlain Bridge.
The corporation's board itself probed the issue, and concluded no rules had been broken.
The federal scene has popped up a few times recently at the Charbonneau commission, even though the inquiry is not touching on that level of government. One construction industry executive said last week that his firm, Dessau, had used fake billing schemes to funnel money to federal parties.
There were no more details about which parties might have received the cash, how much they received, and when they received it.