The bid-rigging system that plagued the construction industry in the Montreal area allegedly crept into the offices of four engineering firms that operate in Gatineau, Que., from where they also work with the federal government.
The Charbonneau Commission, back after its summer break, heard that the four firms designed a system to split public-works contracts in Gatineau between 2003 and 2009. The members of the cartel communicated in person at first, the inquiry was told, but then started to divide contracts on the phone, using an elaborate code to communicate their prices before submitting their bids. A winner was selected and the others sent in higher bids, replicating a system that appeared years earlier in the greater Montreal area and which was laid bare by the inquiry during its hearings in the spring.
The firms located in the National Capital Region also offered their services at the time to the federal government, according to federal records. However, the Charbonneau inquiry has a provincial mandate and cannot examine practices at the federal level, leaving unanswered questions about the existence of any collusion on federal contracts over the years.
The alleged bid-rigging system in Gatineau was laid out by Marc-André Gélinas, an engineer at AECOM, a firm that used to be called Tecsult. He said that in 2003, he was told by company officials in Laval – where a similar system long existed – that his firm and three others had agreed to split up contracts between $25,000 to $500,000 in Gatineau. According to the deal, the contracts would go to Cima+ (40 per cent), Genivar (27 per cent), Tecsult (22 per cent) and Dessau (11 per cent), Mr. Gélinas said.
Mr. Gélinas is collaborating with the Charbonneau inquiry as well as the Competition Bureau, which recently conducted raids at a number of firms in the Gatineau area. He testified that he put an end to the practice after reading about criminal charges against people involved in a similar system in the field of informational technology.
Mr. Gélinas told the inquiry that he knew he was involved in an illegal activity, but had "underestimated the seriousness of what we were doing." He added that the engineering firms in Gatineau offered gifts such as wine and hockey tickets to city officials, but that no one was corrupted inside the municipal organization.
"There weren't any bureaucrats or politicians involved. Our system didn't leave traces," he testified.
Still, the Mayor of Gatineau, Marc Bureau, expressed his outrage at the system by which four firms manoeuvred to hold on to their market shares in his city. He complained that such a system is nearly undetectable and that the only good side to the story was that no one in his administration was involved in wrongdoing, contrary to the situation in Montreal, Laval and a number of other municipalities.
"We are very surprised, very shocked by all of this," Mr. Bureau said. "We did everything we could to avoid this from happening. … Collusion is very hard to detect."
Mr. Bureau was further embarrassed by the fact that he had received political donations from Mr. Gélinas in recent years. He said he was willing to give back the money, but did not know where he should send it. "I don't think I'll give back $500 to Mr. Gélinas, who is responsible in part for the existence of this system," Mr. Bureau said.
One of the engineers who allegedly helped co-ordinate the system in the Gatineau area, François Paulhus, sits on the board of directors of the National Capital Commission. Officials from the federal agency were still trying to contact the former senior official at Genivar before commenting on the matter on Tuesday.
Mr. Paulhus denied any wrongdoing in interviews with the media in Quebec City, where he had been running for a seat on the city council. He dropped out of the race after his name surfaced at the Charbonneau inquiry.
The inquiry will focus many of its hearings in coming weeks on the role of unions in the construction industry, including ties between union officials and members of criminal groups.
With a report from The Canadian Press