The Charbonneau corruption commission started with a bang but then, last week, as it abruptly adjourned its public hearings for two months, it left the scene on a sour note, with many people wondering what happened to the presumption of innocence at the core of our justice system.
The commission's last move was to publish a long list of names of people – politicians, party fundraisers, engineers and contractors – who had lunch at one time or another since 2005 at an exclusive Old Montreal private club. Some of the people named – notably Paolo Catania, a prominent contractor and a member of Club 357c – were later accused of fraud in a municipal real-estate transaction.
The list, heavy with what seems like guilt by association, was unveiled by a commission investigator without comment, but the context was clear: In the emotional court of public opinion and possibly in the commission's eyes, those on the list are presumed guilty of something. They won't have the chance to defend themselves for weeks, maybe months. Some of them don't even know why their names were on the list.
During its fall hearings, the commission allowed many allegations of wrongdoing to float around people who've never been accused of anything. And the names of various personalities involved in provincial and municipal politics have been bandied about by the commission's star witness, Lino Zambito, a former construction boss whose credibility is questionable since he's facing criminal charges of fraud and bribery.
The atmosphere is now so heavy with unproved allegations that anyone who has ever raised money for a political party or works for an engineering consulting firm can be the target of innuendo on talk shows or social media.
Even Club 357c, founded by Softimage creator and philanthropist Daniel Langlois, is suspected of dark activities. Why, for instance, would people meet behind closed doors? Do they have something to hide? Quebec Premier Pauline Marois had to intervene to stop the paranoia. She's been there, too, she said, and so have former premier Lucien Bouchard and countless other high-profile citizens.
Commissions of inquiry usually have a lot of room in which to manoeuvre. They're not bound by the rules that govern court trials. Still, one expects they would do their best to protect reputations. But, for months now, the Charbonneau inquiry has acted as though the presumption of innocence doesn't matter much. Furthermore, the commission often waited until the last minute to give defence lawyers representing potential witnesses the information they need for their cross-examinations.
And what about the old saying that justice delayed is justice denied? By the time the people named at the Charbonneau inquiry will be able to try to clear their names, the damage will have been done. A reputation is a fragile thing that, once destroyed, can't always be reclaimed.
The commission's defenders dismiss the distress of those who might have been unfairly targeted, and the suffering of their families, as "collateral damage." Or, as they coldly say, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.
So far, the Charbonneau inquiry has been extremely useful in exposing a deeply ingrained system of corruption. But it must do more to protect people's reputations.