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Canada Montreal corruption report details collusion among snow-removal companies

Former construction boss Lino Zambito testifies before the Charbonneau inquiry probing corruption and collusion in Quebec's construction industry, Oct. 1, 2012 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

On the eve of the long-awaited publication of Justice France Charbonneau's report on corruption in Quebec, a new Montreal investigative unit spawned by the judge's inquiry has issued a timely reminder that the struggle against graft and collusion is not over.

Denis Gallant, Montreal's inspector-general and a former chief counsel for the Charbonneau commission, issued a report on Monday saying private companies manipulate the city's snow-removal tendering system to corner markets and drive up profits. The system Mr. Gallant described in the city's $155-million snow-removal program was very similar to several rigged systems revealed over years of testimony at the Charbonneau inquiry.

Justice Charbonneau will issue her report on Tuesday morning with a host of recommendations to avoid corruption and improve transparency in public contracting in the province. She has also announced her intention to point fingers, issuing more than 200 notices to the political parties and politicians, civil servants, construction companies and unions, organized crime figures, engineers, political fundraisers and organizers who were hauled before the commission.

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The public inquiry, which was created in 2011 and began hearings in May, 2012, cannot assign criminal or civil liability, but it can name the names of people who it believes have done wrong.

Many of the alleged wrongdoers face criminal charges stemming from investigations separate from the inquiry, but few have had their day in court. Among the select few are star witness and whistleblower Lino Zambito, who pleaded guilty to six charges, including fraud and corruption, but avoided jail time after co-operating with authorities.

Jocelyn Dupuis, the former head of the FTQ-Construction union, was found guilty of fraud for rigging expenses and was sentenced to 12 months in jail. He is appealing. Others, such as retired construction magnate Tony Accurso, former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt and Montreal political fundraiser Gilles Trépanier (who was known as "Mr. Three Per Cent" for his alleged cut of rigged municipal contracts), are still months away from trial.

Mr. Gallant avoided naming names. He has passed his findings on to the province's anti-corruption squad and the federal Competition Bureau, and did not want to derail their investigations.

The inspector-general did reveal that threats and intimidation were used until this year to keep out competition. Tendering irregularities, such as contracts that received a single bid or multiple fake bids, showed companies divvied up Montreal's boroughs instead of honestly competing for contracts, Mr. Gallant found.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre pointed to Mr. Gallant's snow-removal report as proof that the system is working. Mr. Gallant has put a spotlight on a problem and the city has already "changed the way snow removal is done in Montreal" by centralizing management, Mr. Coderre said.

Elected officials will make similar claims when the Charbonneau report is released, noting that many steps have been taken.

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Authorities now screen companies that bid on contracts over $10-million for ethical conduct; the police anti-corruption unit, known as UPAC, is a permanent fixture along with Mr. Gallant's office; and the province set up a system to allow public bodies to get their money back from companies found guilty of corruption.

Construction workers who spoke to The Globe and Mail said much less cash and fewer gifts float around Montreal work sites. "We used to be able to count on getting cash bonuses. Not any more," said one, who preferred not to be named. "You don't see all these sketchy Mafia types hanging around." Another worker said free items like hockey tickets and booze are also much less common.

But much work remains. One of the workers said he believes that engineers, who came under the most intense scrutiny at the inquiry, still pay each other off to smooth extra billing and site inspections.

Witnesses at the inquiry described how the Ministry of Transport lost much its engineering expertise to supervise construction, as work was increasingly contracted out. Justice Charbonneau and her co-commissioner, Renaud Lachance, might recommend the province hire more engineers.

They are almost certain to recommend overhauling lowest-bidder tendering for construction contracts. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has acknowledged more improvements are needed in the area.

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