The man once in charge of the Quebec Federation of Labour and its multibillion-dollar investment fund watched gangsters put influential union bosses and millions of dollars from the fund in their pockets, but he says he was powerless to put a complete stop to it.
"I'm not a police chief, I'm a union chief," Michel Arsenault, the former president of the QFL and its investment fund, testified on Monday at Quebec's corruption inquiry.
The labour leader did, however, sound a bit like a parole officer when asked why he favoured allowing the QFL fund to invest $2.5-million in a business owned by onetime Hells Angels associate Ronald Beaulieu.
"In Quebec, we have a philosophy of rehabilitation; we have fewer people in prison. I thought Beaulieu was rehabilitated," he testified.
Mr. Arsenault said he was only one voice on the board of the investment fund, and the unions operating under his federation were autonomous and beyond his control. However, wiretaps showed he had a lot of sway on both fronts.
In a day of testy exchanges with Sonia LeBel, head counsel for the Charbonneau commission, the union leader sidestepped questions and ran out the clock with a lengthy discourse on the fund's importance in preserving jobs, and his vital role in protecting the province's "national" interests.
Near the end of the day, commission head Justice France Charbonneau was exasperated: "Mr. Arsenault, I understand you might think you are being tortured, but if you would answer the question instead of branching off, it would be shorter and you'd be done more quickly."
Questioning on Monday did not touch on Mr. Arsenault's relationship with Premier Pauline Marois or her financier husband, Claude Blanchet. In a wiretap recording played at the inquiry last week, Mr. Arsenault was heard saying he would ask them to protect the unions by blocking a public inquiry.
What he could not avoid on Monday were wiretaps on gang infiltration in the union.
In phone calls police taped from 2007 to 2009, Mr. Arsenault said some top union executives were in thrall to Hells Angels and mobsters.
Mr. Arsenault said mob insider Raynald Desjardins "has control over that gang," meaning the QFL-construction union, and that its boss, Jocelyn Dupuis, "likes to go to the same bars as gangsters and the Hells and have his photo taken with them."
Months later, Mr. Arsenault asked Mr. Dupuis to step down after reports of lavish and false expense claims embarrassed senior leadership. "He's probably the guy who did the most damage to the QFL in the past 25 years," Mr. Arsenault said in one wiretap after Mr. Dupuis's departure.
Mr. Arsenault said he thought Mr. Desjardins "was a businessman" when fund officials explored an investment with him. Mr. Arsenault said he conducted some research, was "terrified by the name" and tried to block any further investment.
For months, the inquiry has heard testimony about QFL executives' cozy relationship with entrepreneurs like Tony Accurso, who now faces multiple criminal charges.
Mr. Arsenault said he was in contact with Mr. Accurso as recently as last November, when the construction boss invited him for dinner after the labour executive announced his retirement. At the time, there was a furor about the union's activities and its leaders' ties to Mr. Accurso.
He said he occasionally had meals with Mr. Accurso, and added that their spouses share an interest in playing piano.
Mr. Arsenault admitted he was among union leaders, municipal politicians and others who took a Caribbean vacation on Mr. Accurso's yacht, but denied Ms. LeBel's suggestion they were friends.
Mr. Arsenault also denied there was a conflict of interest in cultivating a relationship with a client of the investment fund who is a major employer for his union members. The top priority is doing what is best for workers, he said, but in the workplace and with their retirement money invested with the union's fund.