The Quebec inquiry looking at allegations of corruption in the province got a major boost Friday when a judge ordered the RCMP to share a massive cache of evidence it had gathered while investigating the Montreal Mafia.
For four years in the past decade, the RCMP wiretapped Montreal mob suspects and taped 1.5 million conversations, most of which have never been made public.
The evidence was intercepted during Project Coliseum, a successful crackdown against the clan of Montreal mafia godfather Vito Rizzuto. Less than one per cent of the wiretaps has been disclosed in court proceedings.
"No privilege or restriction prevents the RCMP from giving the inquiry evidence from Project Coliseum," Madam Justice Guylène Beaugé of the Quebec Superior Court said in a 14-page decision.
The anti-corruption commission headed by Justice France Charbonneau was set up following allegations of widespread collusion in the awarding of public contracts in Quebec. The allegations have touched all political levels, from municipal councils to provincial and federal governments.
When the Charbonneau commission asked last fall for access to the RCMP evidence, the force said provincial inquiries have no jurisdiction over a federal agency.
Federal lawyers cited the 1979 Keable Supreme Court decision that limited the ability of a provincial inquiry to investigate Mounties' dirty tricks against the separatist movement.
In her decision, Judge Beaugé said that Supreme Court ruling only prevents provincial inquiries from probing federal agencies and from forcing federal ministers to testify. The Charbonneau inquiry isn't investigating the RCMP and the force isn't a minister of the Crown, the judge said.
Citing another Supreme Court decision, dealing with the inquiry into the Westray mine disaster, Judge Beaugé said public inquiries are important "to uncover `the truth', in reaction to the population's shock, horror, disillusion or skepticism.
Charbonneau commission lawyer Sylvain Lussier said the ruling is crucial in reaffirm the powers of provincial inquiries.
Also, he said, the ruling approved the inquiry's approach of filing an initial sweeping subpoena to get access, then later making more specific requests.
The Charbonneau commission is operating at the same time as several police investigations. Last week, a special police anti-corruption squad arrested 15 people, including the construction magnate Antonio Accurso.
The head of the squad says there are also investigations into contracts awarded by the provincial electrical utility Hydro-Québec, and infrastructure projects for the development of mines under the government's Plan Nord.
Despite the RCMP's lack of co-operation, evidence from Project Coliseum has been used in a federal investigation into Quebec construction bosses and alleged corruption among Revenue Canada auditors.
Project Coliseum ran from 2002 to 2006 and led to guilty pleas from six underworld bosses.
The wiretaps made public so far show that the Montreal mob extorted many entrepreneurs while keeping cozy ties with others.
The evidence includes 1.5 million telephone conversations and 1,500 surveillance videos.