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Canada How a 1970s inquiry exposed mobsters and educated Quebeckers

A Quebec government worried about allegations of corruption. Journalists exposing the widespread influence of organized crime. A public eager for answers.

That may sound just like the bad year Premier Jean Charest has just survived, under pressure to call for a commission of inquiry into extortion and money laundering in the construction industry and political payoffs.

But almost 40 years ago this was also the scenario Premier Robert Bourassa faced. So in 1972 he set up the Commission d'enquête sur le crime organisé (CECO) - an aggressive inquiry into organized crime that would push the legal boundaries by today's standards but many say got the job done.

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Canada had never seen anything like it before or since: a parade of top mobsters - and their hapless victims - telling their stories under the full glare of television cameras.

"My family was held hostage for a week by four criminals and my wife and teenage daughter were threatened with rape," said one former bookmaker, explaining why he was reluctant to come forward until the Commission gave him protection.

"Bourassa thought that it was preferable to have a public inquiry to establish that there was no cover-up, that he was not afraid to shine a light," said Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, a crusading crime reporter back then. For his troubles, Mr. Charbonneau was shot three times in his own newsroom by a vengeful mobster.

He and other journalists were breaking stories about everything from Mafia figures contributing to the Liberal Party election coffers to police wiretaps that revealed the organized crime leaders boasting of their power.

The Liberals appointed a panel of three judges - armed with sweeping powers and its own teams of investigators under the Quebec Police Commission - to interrogate anyone they suspected was connected to organized crime. For the next four years, the CECO became a sort of soap opera and school room, educating Quebeckers - and exposing criminals.

Quebeckers shuddered when they found out mob-connected companies had sold 400,000 pounds of putrid meat, salvaged from sick or dead cows, for resale at Expo 67. They heard allegations that mobsters were friendly with Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, who had been murdered by his FLQ kidnappers during the October Crisis of 1970.

The hearing room was often packed with an audience of 300 people, some of whom had driven hours to see the spectacle. For the first time in Canadian history, TV cameras were brought in to provide live coverage of a judicial inquiry. Quebec stations broadcast highlights regularly. The Globe and Mail called it "the best show in town."

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Indeed, the Commission showed a surprisingly modern sensitivity to the needs of the electronic media. It recessed briefly every hour to give the cameramen time to reload their cassettes without missing any of the action. When one station in a remote corner of the province complained it couldn't get the tapes in time, the commissioners offered to send a police officer to deliver them.

But it was a show largely controlled and stage-managed by the commissioners and their battery of prosecutors and police investigators. "I want people to see the faces of these guys and watch them squirm in the witness box," Jean Dutil, one of the judges, told The Globe at the time.

And squirm they did.

The inquiry was allowed to use hearsay evidence and extensive wiretaps to embarrass and corner its targets - prompting outcries from the Quebec Bar Association and some editorialists that this was "a kangaroo court." Evidence was not disclosed to defence lawyers, who were often berated and mocked by the commissioners. Newspapers recounted how prosecutors went after "tired, beaten witnesses," shouting at them to confess: "We know you did it. Now admit it, admit it!"

And the reputed Mafia bosses who refused to admit anything were punished.

Witnesses accused the alleged godfather of Montreal, Vic Cotroni, of running protection, prostitution and drug rackets. When he was hauled before the commission in May of 1974, he insisted he was just a humble sausage maker "I don't know anything about a group or organization," he said when asked about the Mafia.

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Pushed about regular meetings he held with the head of one of the other main crime families almost every Monday night at one of Montreal's famed eateries, Mr. Cotroni replied: "I don't like eating alone. I like steaks, and Moishe's are the best in town."

The commissioners sentenced him to a year in jail for contempt.

The following year, police arrested another reputed Mafia leader Paolo Violi in Toronto while eating supper at Toronto's Courtyard Café in the Windsor Arms Hotel. They slapped him in handcuffs, put him on a plane and three days later he was standing, nattily attired, in front of the judges and television lights.

"I don't understand all what you say," he said, claiming a poor command of English. "I have absolutely nothing to say to this court."

He too got a year in jail for refusing to co-operate; he was later gunned down by Mafia rivals in 1978.

Clément Bousquet, at the time an organized crime specialist for the Sûrété du Québec (SQ) assigned as a special investigator to CECO, watched it all with satisfaction.

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"The Mafia leaders were humiliated," said Mr. Bousquet, now retired at 70. "They bragged to people they were untouchable, above the law. But they had their tails between their legs."

But others say the Commission was more show than substance - a valuable exercise in public education, perhaps, but not a solution to crime and corruption. "It didn't put anybody behind bars for any length of time," says a senior prosecutor who asked not to be identified because of the current political sensitivity around the topic. "Everyone loves to see the witnesses squirm. The real question is: does it actually solve problems?"

The exposure did "disrupt and weaken" the Cotroni-Violi organization, argues Mr. Charbonneau, who went on to become a Parti Québécois politician. "Organized crime works in the shadows - they detest being exposed."

Former SQ investigator Mr. Bousquet insists that a public inquiry is the only way to get today's victims to come forward, much like they did almost four decades ago.

"The favourite weapon of organized crime is fear," he said. "You don't know how many victims I talked to who were threatened with having their legs broken, their family kidnapped or the homes and businesses burned.

"A public inquiry gives victims the protection of a subpoena obliging them to testify and also strength in numbers. It gives them courage - and then the full story can come out."

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Last Friday, Premier Charest ended the stormy fall session of the National Assembly, saying the ongoing police investigations are better suited "to clean up our garden" rather than bringing back a CECO-style inquiry.

Perhaps he too has been reading through the newspaper archives from the 1970s. As one headline about the political scandals and corruption exposed by the crime commission put it: "Politicians more embarrassed than underworld."

Then and now

Investigators in a modern-day probe into organized crime and corruption under today's laws and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would have to tread much more carefully than the aggressive CECO investigators did in the 1970s.

"They got really carried away with themselves, with an attempt to punish and intimidate," said Ed Ratushny, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on public commissions.

Police: The CECO worked hand-in-hand with its own squad of full-time cops; today that would be seen as undermining the need to be "impartial and objective." Mr. Ratushny said an inquiry would have to carve out "a delicate balance" by educating the public without prejudicing any ongoing police work or pending trials.

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Wiretaps: Surreptitious evidence could be used to expose wrongdoing but not to "nail an individual for crime." Court rulings since the 1970s have limited the scope and powers of public inquiries, preventing them from becoming open-ended criminal investigations.

Surprise evidence: The CECO delighted in catching witnesses in lies but today much more material would have to be disclosed to witnesses and their lawyers beforehand under "principles of fairness"

Subpoenas: People could still be obliged to testify and be punished if they don't comply. But that would also give legal cover to victims who would otherwise be reluctant to come forward.

"An inquiry today can't focus on going after the bad guys," Mr. Ratushny said. "But it can answer questions like what went wrong, how did this happen and how can we avoid this in the future."

Julian Sher

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