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Opinion The Charbonneau commission was an expensive disappointment

Pfffft – that's the sound of the Charbonneau commission deflating like a huge balloon, ending its hearings after three noisy but inconclusive years. The commission, whose proceedings made for must-watch TV in Quebec, was supposed to shed light on the allegations of corruption in the construction industry raised over the years by investigative journalists and police inquiries. But the results have been disappointing, to say the least.

The commission, presided over by Justice France Charbonneau, opened with various experts, some of whom hailed from Italy, giving impressive testimony about the Mafia. So the public could reasonably expect that the commission would explore how the Mafia infiltrated Quebec's construction industry. It never did. A former construction boss – himself charged in an alleged corruption scheme – testified that Mafia bosses from the Rizzuto clan would rig the system by acting as arbitrators so that various contractors would take turns as the lowest bidder for major projects – at grossly inflated costs, and with a cut for the Mafia. But the commission didn't pursue the matter further.

The commission was supposed to explore whether collusion had taken place between governments and contractors. Much was learned about the fact that politicians pressured engineering firms for political contributions, but the commission didn't unveil a single case where a specific contract was obtained in exchange for a political contribution. The commission devoted a great deal of time to witnesses who explained how the contributing firms circumvented electoral laws – they would use their employees as donors and reimburse them later – but this scheme was already well-known.

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The commission caught a few small fries at the municipal level, including veteran City of Montreal engineers who admitted to receiving substantial gifts from contractors in order to close their eyes to over-priced tenders. At the provincial level, the commission didn't or couldn't uncover a single case of corruption, which leaves one to conclude either that there wasn't much dirt to dig, or that the commission was incompetent.

The commission didn't bother to look into the way the Department of Transport dealt with the contractors. Nor did it bother to call obvious potential witnesses to the bar, such as former premier Jean Charest, chief Liberal fundraiser Marc Bibeau or real-estate promoter Claude Blanchet, the husband of former premier Pauline Marois – even though their names had been mentioned by many witnesses.

What the commission was very successful at, though, was allowing reputations to be smeared, by way of unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing. Some people lost jobs only because their names had been mentioned at the commission. Two years ago, the commission published a list of a few dozen high-profile personalities who dined at an exclusive private club in Old Montreal, a place also occasionally visited by some individuals charged with wrongdoing. Then we never heard anything more about this astounding case of guilt by association. But incoherence was the commission's trademark.

As Montreal Gazette columnist Don MacPherson has written, the commission "appeared to be suffering from attention deficit disorder. [It] would follow a trail for a while, then abruptly stop before it reached the end, and start up another one. On some trails, it would retrace its steps over and over again. On others, it would sprint over the ground, scarcely stopping to examine the signs."

Bad work, especially given that it cost taxpayers more than $1-million a month.

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