Quebec's corruption inquiry was greed laid bare.
Over three years and a total of 261 days of hearings, the Commission of Inquiry into the Tendering and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry (forever to be known as the Charbonneau Commission) allowed a province to air a large hamper full of dirty laundry.
It wasn't exactly a trip to the confessional for this once-profoundly Catholic society. For one thing, it was an examination of sin via television and lacked the intimacy of penance. For another, most Quebeckers were embarrassed but felt no personal culpability for what went on. Not many people dragged before the inquiry were in the mood for contrition anyway.
But Charbonneau became a daytime ratings hit and exposed rot at the foundation of how Quebeckers are governed and how their money is spent.
It was also a ripping good yarn about greed and venality, aired live. There were mobsters and construction bosses dividing billions of dollars of public-works contracts on the golf course, Sopranos-style. There were grasping politicians and bureaucrats, taking all the Montreal Canadiens tickets, Caribbean trips, bottles of wine, fancy restaurant meals, golf games, kitchen appliances, home renovations and yacht trips they could lay their sticky hands upon.
Wiretaps exposed tantalizing glimpses of how people from the Montreal functionary to a union boss to the premier of Quebec appease, cajole, ingratiate and bully their way into power.
Then there was the cash. Wads and wads of filthy lucre, some arranged in bricks and put on display at the inquiry. Mostly it was described filling a construction boss's coat, stuffed into mobsters' socks, overflowing from a safe and hidden under the bed.
There was the stern inquisitor-in-chief, Justice France Charbonneau, scolding liars and commending truth-tellers. When one Montreal official pleaded ignorance about crimes under his nose, she asked: "Are you trying to tell me you were both an imbecile and incompetent?"
The witnesses were an assortment of charming rogues, obvious liars, self-deceivers and credulous dupes.
The ex-senior cop launched Quebec’s anti-corruption squad and wrote (and then leaked) a report on corruption, forcing Jean Charest’s government to call the inquiry. The report became a road map for the commission.
NOW: He briefly held a seat in the National Assembly before retiring from politics earlier this year. He has gone back to school to complete a doctorate on terrorism.
The affable construction boss charmed Quebeckers with his frank talk as he described how he and his industry colluded on contracts, corrupted officials and paid tribute to mobsters. He was one of the most important witnesses at the commission.
NOW: Mr. Zambito declared bankruptcy last year. He faces criminal charges over an alleged scheme to fix a waterworks contract in a Montreal suburb.
Known as “Mr. Three Per Cent” in Montreal’s construction and political financing circles, testimony at the inquiry showed the ex-fundraiser for the party of former Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in hidden cash donations. It was Mr. Trépanier who famously needed help closing a safe at his party office because it was so stuffed with cash.
NOW: Mr. Trépanier continues to plead innocence.
The former mayor of Montreal always claimed he didn’t know his city’s contracts were being rigged, his bureaucrats and deputies were on the take, that his party was raking in hundreds of thousands in illicit cash. There was some disputed evidence that he did know what was going on, but it seems the mayor at least turned a blind eye. He was forced to resign in November, 2012, after nearly 10 years in office.
NOW: Mr. Tremblay completed a religious pilgrimage on the Compostela trail in Spain. Upon his return, he painted his downfall in biblical terms, saying he’d been betrayed by a Judas within his ranks. Judas was never named, but widely assumed to be Frank Zampino, his long-time second-in-command now facing corruption charges.
The Corrupt Bureaucrat
The city of Montreal engineer was just one who took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes on dozens of city public-works contracts, but Mr. Surprenant’s greed was so well known, his construction bosses nicknamed his fee the TPS (“Taxe pour Surprenant”) by construction firms.
NOW: Mr. Surprenant gave back $123,000 and said he blew at least $500,000 more on home renovations and gambling. He retired in 2009. This summer, he agreed to pay $72,000 to the city.
Known as “Monsieur Trottoir” (Mr. Sidewalk), Mr. Milioto ran his own construction firm but also collected stacks of cash from the companies and delivered it to the Rizzuto crime family. One political operative who objected testified “Mr. Sidewalk” threatened to bury him beneath one of his walkways.
NOW: Mr. Milioto is retired.
The Construction Boss
At the height of his power, Mr. Accurso and his family controlled 63 Quebec construction and real estate companies, including some of the biggest. His empire grew with union investment and gave Mr. Accurso a stranglehold on the biggest projects in the province. Mr. Accurso’s yacht, the Touch, was famously a favoured entertainment venue for the province’s union bosses and politicians. Mr. Accurso had ties everywhere, from the premier’s office to leading figures of the Rizzuto family.
NOW: Mr. Accurso says he has retired from business, and some of his major firms have been sold from family control. Mr. Accurso is facing corruption charges.
The Union Boss
Mr. Dupuis was in charge of one of the province’s biggest unions, the FTQ-Construction, at a time it was deeply infiltrated by organized crime groups. Mr. Dupuis used his expense account as his personal bank, racking up $225,000 in fraudulent expenses in just one 10-month period. He and other executives curried favour with politicians and businessmen while they were supposed to be representing workers.
NOW: Mr. Dupuis is among the first major figures in Quebec’s corruption scandal to have his day in court. He was found guilty of fraud in September. He will be sentenced in January.
Mr. Rizzuto was in jail for much of the mid-2000s but he was still the boss. The inquiry heard how his family took a cut on major construction contracts and how he courted bureaucrats and helped settle disputes when the companies couldn’t agree on how to divvy up business.
NOW: Mr. Rizzuto died of natural causes last December after a long struggle for control of organized crime in Montreal that saw the murder of several of his family members and associates.
Justice Charbonneau dedicated the greatest portion of time to ripping apart the perfect circle that ran many of Montreal’s public-works construction contracts for more than a decade. About a dozen companies dominated hundreds of millions of dollars on contracts over that time and longer. According to testimony by one of the members of the circle, Lino Zambito, the company owners would take turns “winning” tenders for Montreal contracts and inform city bureaucrats who would adjust budgets to fit the price and collect a cut. The Rizzuto family took their own percentage for keeping the peace and settling disputes. Montreal was the example examined most closely by the inquiry, but similar systems existed in Laval, Boisbriand and a host of other nearby towns.
Cash for campaigns
The construction companies also pumped cash into the hidden coffers of municipal political parties and the pockets of officials to look the other way. Engineering firms were solicited for straw-man donations at the municipal and provincial levels. Corporate donations were illegal, but bagmen would solicit large amounts from the firms, which would then dole out cash to employees, family members and friends who would then make personal donations and get the tax deduction. One witness suggested only 10 or 20 per cent of political donations in Quebec were made out of conviction. The rest were arranged illegally by companies vying for public contracts. Other cash donations weren’t thinly disguised. Bernard Trépanier kept a safe full of cash gathered from construction companies that he would allegedly distribute under the table to campaigns. One witness described flooding many municipal elections with funds and essentially hand-picking winners and losers, leaving unsuspecting voters with little say.
Traditionally, the image of work-site intimidation involving baseball bats springs to mind when one thinks of union strength and organized crime. It was certainly true in Quebec, where unions helped chase off foreign competition for local construction companies and fought one another for control of work sites. But the real union power in the province came from a multibillion-dollar investment fund controlled by the Quebec Federation of Labour. The fund helped build the massive construction empire of Tony Accurso. It even paid for half of his yacht, the Touch, which he used to woo politicians. Former QFL head Michel Arsenault (a Touch visitor) was quick to pick up a phone and lobby former premier Jean Charest or Pauline Marois, before her time as premier, on behalf of Mr. Accurso’s interests.
A culture of currying favour
At its height, Quebec’s construction corruption was refined to cold accounting and percentages skimmed from contracts. But the careful cultivation of friendships among bosses, political operatives, bureaucrats and gangsters through golf games, free trips and other prizes went on for decades. Frank Zampino, Montreal’s former deputy mayor, testified he didn’t see anything wrong with bureaucrats and politicians accepting the generosity of their contractors. (Mr. Zampino also boarded the Touch.) Political fundraiser Bernard Trépanier offered a line that has become an oft-repeated unofficial slogan among inquiry watchers: “Un chum, c’est un chum.” A pal is a pal. Time and again, friendship trumped fiduciary duty.
Much has already changed in the relationship between contractors and the public officials handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in government work.
The inquiry heard that the simple establishment of an anti-corruption squad in 2009 dried up much of the shady business. The cost of replacing the city’s sidewalks and sewers suddenly plunged by 30 percent with new scrutiny and true competition. New watchdog agencies verify contracts at the city of Montreal and a provincial authority checks the credentials of contractors. Work has sometimes slowed, but fewer fresh scandals have emerged in recent years.
And yet the Charbonneau Commission seems to have left much on the table.
Mr. Charest resisted calling a public inquiry and many believed he feared a provincial mess equal to the cesspool at the city level. Nothing like it was exposed. Mr. Charest merged largely unscathed and was not called to testify. Still, unanswered questions remain about the ties and fundraising tactics of Liberal associates.
The judge also lacked a mandate to look at federal matters, so she would veer suddenly away when Ottawa came up. She also had to skirt dozens of criminal cases to avoid contaminating trials and ongoing investigations, she said.
In her closing remarks Friday, Justice Charbonneau reminded Quebeckers her original marching orders limited her examination. “The commission did not receive the mandate to analyze the broader fundraising of political parties, but only as it pertained to managing public-sector contracts lined to the construction industry,” she said. If road and sewer contracts weren’t involved, fundraising remained unexamined.
Even within her scope, the seasoned former prosecutor and judge said she delved only into the most revelatory cases to hold up as examples.
Justice Charbonneau said her inquiry existed only because Quebeckers demanded the system be cleaned up. Now it’s up to all Quebeckers to set an ethical standard and demand ethical behaviour from everyone around them, she said.
“Denunciation must no longer be seen as traitorous act, but as an act of great loyalty, to an organization, to the public service, to society in general,” she said. “Laws and rules alone will not put an end to corruption. We must all put our shoulder to the wheel.”
Justice Charbonneau’s report is due next April.