When two companies once controlled by Montreal-area construction magnate Tony Accurso pleaded guilty to tax evasion this week, Quebeckers missed a golden opportunity to blow the lid off alleged corruption in the industry.
The two companies – Simard-Beaudry Construction Inc. and Louisbourg Construction Ltd. – were fined $4-million and were ordered to refund the federal government an equal amount in back taxes.
With the guilty plea, Mr. Accurso will eventually have his builder's licence revoked or suspended under a recent law adopted by the Quebec National Assembly. But the conviction will only put a dent in the fight against corruption in the province. Without a trial, taxpayers will never get to hear witnesses, which would have shed light on the complex schemes Mr. Accurso's companies put in place to defraud taxpayers.
More importantly, without a trial it will be impossible to know whether there was any political involvement.
TAXPAYERS IN THE DARK
What it all means for Quebeckers is this: If charges are laid against other construction companies involved in similar schemes, a simple guilty plea will also allow them to keep it all in the dark.
Which is why the guilty plea continued to fuel demands for a full public inquiry in order to determine whether the construction companies used their wealth to influence political parties and define how government contracts were awarded.
In 1999, one of Mr. Accurso's construction companies was found guilty of tax fraud and ordered to pay a $200,000 in fine. Despite the conviction, Mr. Accurso continued to rack-up government contracts under both the Parti Québécois and Liberal regimes.
He was a major player in the construction of the $6-billion dollar, 1,550 megawatt La Romaine hydro-electric project, his companies have been awarded several public contracts in recent years and he plays a role in the consortium that was awarded the $1.3-billion contract to build the McGill University Hospital centre.
Premier Jean Charest's refusal to hold a public inquiry into alleged corruption in the construction industry, the awarding of government contracts and the financing of political parties only adds to suspicions about the industry's ties to politicians.
Mr. Charest should have clarified the conflict of interest rules a long time ago – as he had originally promised to do in 2003 before being elected Premier. He made the commitment at a time when the integrity of the outgoing Parti Québécois under Bernard Landry was under attack.
Voters at the time were just as suspicious of Mr. Charest, who had close ties with the construction industry. In March o 2000, when he was opposition leader, Mr. Charest accepted a junket to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to speak to members of the Canadian Construction Association. The group paid his airfare and hotel room for the four-day event while Mr. Charest said he covered the cost for his family, who accompanied him.
But Mr. Charest was unapologetic about the whole affair. As he was in 2008 when it was revealed the party was secretly paying him $75,000 a year from their political donations, a bonus salary he had to forfeit last week with the adoption of new rules governing the conduct of the Members of the National Assembly.
A NEW KIND OF CORRUPTION
Despite the heat his scandal-ridden government has been taking, Mr. Charest has closed the door to holding a public inquiry. And that decision has been a godsend for Mr. Accurso and other construction entrepreneurs. That means they can stay out of the limelight and won't be required to come forward to explain the political ties they've built over the years with those in power.
Instead of a public inquiry, the government has moved to adopt legislation to eliminate the system of disguised political donations. On Thursday, it appointed current access to information commissioner Jacques St-Laurent as the province's first ethics commissioner as part of a series of measures adopted to tighten the conflict of interest rules.
However, without a public inquiry Quebeckers may never know the full extent of the alleged collusion that evolved over the years involving the construction industry, engineering firms and others with various political parties.
And without that knowledge there's no telling how long it will be for the network of corruption to re-emerge under different and more imaginative forms in the future.