“The government’s response to the recommendations of the commission is, thus far, unsatisfactory,” concluded the first report of the public monitoring committee on the Charbonneau Commission.

One year after the commission ended, only 15 of its 60 recommendations have been implemented “in a satisfying manner.” Nine have been partially followed and 36 have yet to be responded to. “The government must do better,” urged committee member Martine Valois in a press release.

The committee looks harshly upon Quebec’s approach to two of Charbonneau’s leading recommendations.

The first is the creation of an independent authority to regulate the management of public contracts. The Autorité des marches publics (AMP), as defined by bill 108, “will have neither the independence nor the powers and functions necessary to act effectively,” states the report.

The committee still supports the creation of the AMP. However, it denounced the limited scope of its functions and its lack of coercive powers. It further asserted that the method for selecting the director endangers the AMP’s independence.

The committee also criticised bill 87, sold to the public as significant protection for whistle-blowers. The bill already caused controversy by not covering municipal nor private sector employees and encouraging internal denunciation instead of transparency.  This bill and other measures intended to regulate the professional workplace “clearly do not go far enough,” the committee estimated.

The government’s best effort was in the area of cleaning up political financing. They fulfilled 8 out the 12 recommendations in that regard.

This is mainly a result of bills 83 and 101, adopted in June. Thanks to those, party chiefs and MNAs are increasingly forced to take responsibility for their team’s financing practices. Also, loans to politicians must now be under $5000 at the municipal level and under $25 000 at the provincial level.

The public monitoring committee for the Charbonneau Commission is a popular initiative. It has seven official members from various backgrounds, including Westmount Mayor Peter Trent and ex Liberal MNA Gilles Ouimet. Three professors, one ex-researcher of the Charbonneau Commission and the president of Transparency International Canada also sit with them. It will produce a second follow-up report on November 23rd 2017.

When ex-Minister Natalie Normandeau was arrested last March, the Couillard administration had declared its strong commitment to implementing Charbonneau’s recommendations. Members of the cabinet have not yet reacted to the follow-up report.

Corruption is something as intrinsic to the City of Montreal as the Jazz Festival, fine cuisine, and frivolous disputes over the language of commercial signage. The end of this month is an important date in the world of municipal corruption because it is the deadline for construction companies to pay the City of Montreal back for the overcharging revealed in the massive collusion investigation conducted by the Charbonneau Commission.

Collusion is a secret agreement between two or more people with the goal of causing harm to one or more of them or to reach an objective prohibited by law.

The investigation by the Charbonneau Commission led by Justice France Charbonneau and her fellow commissioner, former Auditor General of Quebec Renaud Lachance, was started in 2011 under former premier Jean Charest. Its goal was to investigate corruption between Quebec government bodies, construction and engineering firms, and in many cases the Montreal Mafia, since 1996.

The enquiry revealed construction and engineering firms billing of the City of Montreal for phony expenses, the rigging of bids for public works projects, and the mandatory paying of kickbacks to government officials and mobsters. Among those implicated in the investigation are the engineering firm Roche and the construction firm Les Grands Travaux Soter. Former Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt was also implicated with reports indicating that entrepreneurs working on Laval projects were expected to give him a two point five percent cut of the value of each contract they got.

Gilles Vaillancourt has since stepped down as mayor after over 23 years in office and is now facing charges for conspiracy, fraud, breach of trust, and gangsterism.

The corruption allegations in Quebec and the ensuing Charbonneau Commission resulted in the adoption of the Quebec Anti-Corruption Act in 2011.

The purpose of the act is to prevent and fight corruption in contractual matters with the public sector. The law also has the goal of restoring the public’s faith in the private sector’s construction deals with the government. Among its provisions is the establishment of the Anti-Corruption Commissioner, who is appointed by the Quebec government to fight corruption.

The Anti-Corruption Act is excessive. The Canadian Criminal Code already has provisions against fraud, corruption, and bribery, all of which fall under the jurisdiction of the police and Attorney General who can conduct investigations and prosecute offenders.

What the law does in addition to creating the Anti-Corruption Commissioner is specify what bodies are considered part of the public sector and therefore under the Commissioner’s jurisdiction. This includes any public body or government agency, the Université du Québec and its constituent universities, research institutes and superior schools, and all schools and school boards established by law and/or eligible for government subsidies. ^Though logic dictates that any organization funded by or under the control of the government is part of the public sector.

With agents and organizations already in place to investigate corruption and criminal activity, the Anti-Corruption Commissioner appears to be a purely symbolic office created to show the federal government that Quebec can handle its own corruption problems without the intervention of federally appointed prosecutors and judges.

The reason it is important to discuss this now is because of Law 26, adopted unanimously by the Quebec National Assembly in March of 2015 as the Charbonneau Commission drew to a close.

Law 26, known in long form as an Act to ensure mainly the recovery of amounts obtained as a result of fraud or fraudulent tactics in connection with public contracts sets up a program by which companies implicated in fraud can pay back some of the money they cheated taxpayers of.

The City of Montreal sent out 380 letters last November to the construction and engineering firms who’ve dealt with the City since 1996. The letters demanded that construction companies pay back 20% of the value of the contracts they’ve had with the City for over two decades in cases where the company was involved in collusion.

Companies and individuals have until November first 2016 to announce their intention to participate. SNC Lavalin, Dessau, and Construction Frank Catania and Associates Inc. have all publicly declared their intention to take part.

Though the law says the program is voluntary, companies that refuse to pay up can face stiff penalties, be sued by the City of Montreal, and be barred from bidding on future contracts with the City.

Former Chief Justice of the Superior Court, François Rolland, who is now Director of this Voluntary Reimbursement Program, has expressed his belief that this will be incentive enough for companies to come forward, but some believe the law lacks teeth.

Simon Seida, a Montreal lawyer with Blake, Cassels & Graydon, told the CBC on November third 2015 that a company that has received no indication that the government is looking into its practices with public contracts or that they’re going to get sued will have little inclination to participate and he is right.

No individual or company is going to pay the government money it does not feel it is legally bound to pay.

There are undoubtedly tons of construction companies in Quebec guilty of collusion but investigations, trials, and lawsuits are probably just as expensive for taxpayers as corruption itself. The Quebec government should go after the big companies involved in the bigger crimes and let the little fish go.

It is the big companies that need to be made an example of and held accountable, not the little ones who made mistakes in the hopes of competing with them. In the name of fiscal accountability, a little streamlining and cutting of government offices wouldn’t hurt either.

Forget The Sopranos, The Godfather even Goodfellas. Forget guns and sleeping with the fishes.

The Montreal mob has a new weapon in their arsenal. It’s not exciting, flashy or even remotely interesting.

Quite the opposite. They now know how to bore the general public to the point where we all lose interest.

It worked on me. Then, by chance, two people I respect brought up the same thing in the same night: the Charbonneau Commission.

Wait, that’s still going on? Yes, despite a large portion of the general public (and yours truly) loosing interest after the commission claimed the political careers of longstanding mayors Gerald Tremblay and Gilles Vaillancourt.

The sacrificial lambs were thrown to the slaughter…and by slaughter I mean a pretty comfortable retirement and no need to answer any more questions. Corruption problem solved!

But the commission continued, undeterred and unnoticed. Witnesses testified, mainstream media reported on it out of duty not interest.

Yeah, a few times the commission tried to get provocative like when they asked city employee Gilles Vezina if he ever accepted the services of a prostitute as a bribe. But alas, the answer was no, the wine and hockey tickets were enough for him, and he wasn’t high profile enough to warrant pursuing the matter further.

Now, it turns out that one of the witnesses, Martin Dumont, felt pressured and asked for his testimony to be stricken. His lawyer threatened to take the matter to Quebec Superior Court if the request is refused. From there, the Supreme Court of Canada becomes an option.

Following a case up the legal food chain is hard enough to do even when it’s salacious and sexy. This is anything but.

If only it was this easy (image: http://earthenergyreader.wordpress.com)

How do you make something already mired in public apathy less appealing? You bog it down in legal procedure, that’s how. Absolutely brilliant.

If it gets to the Supreme Court, everything could be thrown out. If it does, who will notice and moreover who will care? We’ve already got the big names, who cares about the rest?

But we should care. Those are our roads cracking and overpasses crumbling because of shoddy work done by those who got insider contracts and overbilled the taxpayer. Those are our elected officials and unelected bureaucrats taking bribes from the mob. Those are our streets turned into impromptu rivers that sweep McGill students away for a kayak-less ride down to Sherbrooke. This is our public inquiry that risks disappearing without anyone noticing.

What is supposed to be a battle between right and wrong, public good and corruption has turned into a fight to keep the ratings up. On one side, we have the Charbonneau Commission trying to remain relevant and sexy without any big name talent. On the other, the mob and corrupt officials are working their hardest to get this show cancelled midseason. No syndicated reruns, no DVD box sets, just done and gone.

While this analogy may have almost run its course, so has the Charbonneau Commission. Maybe we should make some sort of petition to keep this show going or at very least start paying attention.

It may seem boring, but when you think about it, bringing down the graft that has been institutionalized in Quebec since the 50s or maybe earlier is probably the sexiest most exciting story possible.

Ethan Cox is a Montreal-based writer and political organizer. He was formerly FTB’s news editor and the Quebec director of Brian Topp’s NDP leadership campaign. He is currently a special correspondent reporting on the Maple Spring for Rabble.ca where this post originally appeared.

“It’s one of the best businesses we’ve had in Quebec for decades.” – Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay, commenting on the “remarkable work” of construction magnate Antonio Accurso’s company at City Council on Tuesday. Accurso has been charged with fraud, conspiracy, influence-peddling, breach of trust and two counts of defrauding the government.

While news out of Quebec in recent months has focused on the student strike, and the social movement it has generated, that is not the only reason people here are dissatisfied with our government.

It has been common knowledge for years that our construction industry is riddled with corruption, and that political parties such as Premier Charest’s Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) and Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s Union Montréal (UM) are deeply implicated in the rigging of bids and inflating of contracts in exchange for political contributions.

After stonewalling all attempts to launch an independent investigation into corruption in the construction industry and links to political parties for years, Premier Charest was finally forced to call such an inquiry earlier this year.

Commonly referred to as the Charbonneau Commission, after Justice France Charbonneau, its co-commissioner (along with Renaud Lachance), the Commission d’enquête sur l’octroi et la gestion des contrats publics dans l’industrie de la construction had been toiling away fairly quietly until this week.

That’s when Jacques Duchesneau, former Montreal Police Chief, head of a special anti-collusion investigative unit and co-author of a damning report on corruption in the construction industry, took the stand.

In testimony this week he asserted that “dirty money finances elections”, arguing that a full 70% of political donations are made secretly, and illegally, without the knowledge of Elections Québec.

Duchesneau’s first report, which he leaked to the press in the fall, detailed widespread corruption and collusion within Quebec’s Transport Department. Following its release he says he was approached by over a dozen people who provided him with detailed inside information on the financing of political parties.

Based on this information he took the initiative to prepare a second report, titled “Illegal financing of political parties: a hypocritical system where influence is for rent, where decisions are for sale”.

Although this 50 page report was turned over to the Commission, it was not entered into evidence and as such is not publicly available.

In his testimony Duchesneau asserted that political parties have two pots, one for legitimate donations, and another for illegal contributions. The amount of illegal money flowing into party coffers is so large that party fundraisers “have had trouble shutting the safe’s door”.

He detailed a system in which party fundraisers approach companies for illegal contributions, and in exchange these companies will inflate invoices for work being done for the government. He said at least 50 companies in the Montreal area alone have submitted this type of “false” invoice.

In testimony this week, he and former employees Annie Trudel and Martin Morin did not shy away from naming names, although they refused to cite their anonymous sources, who they believe would be at risk of intimidation or violence if their identities were revealed.

They cited two companies, Neilson Inc. and EBC Inc., which had hired employees to scrutinize public contracts for loopholes which would allow them to add “extras” onto the work and overcharge the government.

Neilson is owned by prominent Quebec Liberal fundraiser Franco Fava, who was accused in 2009 of pressuring former Liberal Justice Minister Marc Bellemare to appoint his favoured judicial candidates to the provincial bench.

On Monday, Morin testifed that “collusion is only limited by imagination, that’s what I have learned working on this.”

He, Trudel and Duchesneau took particular aim at companies owned by Paolo Catania and Antonio Accurso, two major construction magnates who have often been linked to corruption, and who were arrested and charged in a series of sweeps earlier this year by the permanent anti-corruption squad UPAC. Those raids netted over 20 people, including Mayor Tremblay’s former right hand man and chair of the city’s powerful Executive Committee, Frank Zampino.

All are charged with a wide variety of offences, including fraud, breach of trust, conspiracy, municipal corruption, breach of trust by a public official and being party to a criminal offence. Zampino has been accused by UPAC of being the “ringleader” of a bid rigging scheme which defrauded the city of up to $26 million on one land deal alone. He has also been accused of providing insider information on bids to companies owned by Accurso and Catania, in exchange for lavish vacations, other personal perks and massive donations to the Mayor’s Union Montréal party.

But the corruption does not appear to be limited to Union Montréal. Former leader of Vision Montréal Benoît Labonté admitted back in 2009 to illegally taking $100,000 from Accurso to fund his leadership bid and alleged that many members of the provincial Liberal cabinet were closely connected with Accurso.

David Whissell, former provincial labour minister, was forced to resign from cabinet in 2009 over allegations of conflict of interest, when a paving company he co-owns received untendered contracts. His subsequent resignation from politics prompted the recent by-election in Argenteuil, where Liberals lost the seat for the first time in over 50 years.

Although we have had various parts of this puzzle for years, both Charest and Tremblay have insisted that the documented cases of corruption by senior members of their teams were isolated incidents.

The picture pained by Duchesneau and his colleagues this week is of municipal and provincial political parties where corruption is not the exception, but the rule. They outlined a political system driven by illegal contributions, where corruption is known about and encouraged at the highest levels.

Several Quebec mayors have already been arrested, as have many members of Montreal Mayor Tremblay’s inner circle, including his former right hand man Zampino and top fundraiser Bernard Trépanier. One has to wonder if charges will not be forthcoming against the Mayor himself, given the unlikelihood of his top people orchestrating such a complex system of corruption without his knowledge.

At this Tuesday’s Council meeting, Tremblay himself stood to argue that the city could not cancel pending contracts with Accurso’s company, because doing so would stall necessary repairs to municipal infrastructure. He defended the “remarkable work” of Accurso’s company, which he described as “one of the best businesses we’ve had in Quebec for decades”.

This to describe a company implicated in widespread corruption, bid rigging and fraud, which has been accused of defrauding the City of Montreal of $26 million on one deal alone.

In 2009’s municipal election voters rewarded Tremblay with another term, despite widespread allegations of corruption. At the time retired justice John Gomery, who famously headed the Gomery Inquiry into the sponsorship scandal, took the unprecedented step of accusing both Union Montréal and Vision Montréal of corruption, and publicly backing Projet Montréal, which he described as the only “clean” party in municipal politics.

Projet did go from one seat to fourteen in that election, and is expected to be the main challenger to Tremblay’s Union party in elections next fall.

But how do you compete with the not-so-metaphorical suitcases stuffed with cash that Union will bring to the table?

And at the provincial level, where an election could come as early as this fall, what is the alternative? Duchesneau’s testimony did not cite political parties by name, although it is clear that he was referring to the governing party in Quebec and Montreal. But what about the opposition? We’ve known for years of ties between Vision Montréal and Accurso, and the implication that this illegal financing racket is a system which has been in place for years certainly casts doubt on the PQ, and their actions in government and fundraising since.

People like Accurso and Catania don’t back one horse, they back many, so that no matter who wins, their sweet deal remains in place.

The Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ) are too new to have much public baggage, but since the party is led by former PQ cabinet minister François Legault, and made up of former Liberals and Pequistes, I don’t place a lot of stock in the idea they would do things any differently.

Québec Solidaire has a reputation similar to that of Projet Montréal, of being incorruptible. But their chances of winning the next election outright are low. The truth is, we’re pretty screwed at the provincial level.

As Duchesneau said, this system is deeply entrenched in Quebec, at both the provincial and municipal level. “No matter what the rules, people will get around them. The only real deterrent is the certainty that you will be caught”.

To get that certainty, we need a provincial government dedicated to rooting out corruption, rather than covering it up. The Liberals are clearly the worst choice by a country mile, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in the PQ or CAQ either.

I think no matter what happens in the next provincial election we’ll be stuck with a lousy government. But every Québec Solidaire MNA elected is one more voice which will call the government to account, and stand up for the interests of citizens, not corrupt corporate backers. That’s where my vote will go.

Meanwhile, we’re stuck with Charest’s gang, who argue that accessible education is an unaffordable luxury while shoveling taxpayer money out the back door to companies which in turn finance their election campaigns.

Stop the system, I want to get off.


Follow me on twitter @EthanCoxMTL

For more information on the Charbonneau Commission check out Monique Muise, who has been doing great work covering it for the Montreal Gazette. A lot of my research for this piece was based on her articles.

When the Charbonneau commission opens this week dozens of witnesses will testify and be cross examined by representatives from groups as diverse as Hydro Québec to hard core provincial lefties Québec Solidaire. The only oddity with the proceedings will be the conspicuous absence of a single representative from Liberal Party of Quebec. This is rather like having the O.J. Simpson trial without ‘The Juice’ (as he’s sometimes called), testifying before the court. After all, the whole purpose of this inquiry is to establish whether there is any connection between the awarding of juicy pork barrel government construction contracts (corruption never tasted so good!) and the financing of political parties in Quebec.

Yet, the PLQ had no qualms about participating fully in the hearings of Judge Bastarache with regards to the allegations of Charest interfering with the independence of the judiciary by appointing cronies to the bench with the help of former Provincial Justice Minister Bellemare. Ditto, the federal liberal’s at their own inquiry led by Justice Gomery into the Adscam political patronage scheme. So is this a case of LPQ shirking its democratic duty to be accountable to the citizenry then?

Let’s examine the case against them and others, in greater detail. In a report that got leaked by an unknown source, within the governments anti-corruption unit (UPAC) formerly headed by Québec’s answer to Eliott Ness (Jacques Ducheasnau), until he sang like a canary to a parliamentary committee and was promptly given his marching papers. In his report (available online), which does not single out the LPQ, he details the unholy menage a trois between Transport Ministry employees, contractors construction business and engineering firms who get government contracts, then make hefty profits of the deal, ultimately returning the favour by donating to political parties. In the process, biker gangs, organized crime and mafiosos, all take their cuts.

Government cuts to inspectors and engineers exacerbates the situation by putting the government in the difficult position of assessing bids without sufficient expertise to evaluate the costs involved in proposed projects. And like the days of Al Capone’s infamous criminal empire that flourished in Chicago back in the prohibition era of the 1930’s, some of the engineering firms are such cash cows for political fundraising purposes, that they basically become, in the words of an anonymous former political aide, ‘untouchable.’

Naturally, the current Liberal Minister of Transport Pierre Moreau dismissed the problem with his department as being ‘a few bad apples.’

In other related news, the head of the Securité Québec’s escouade Marteau (The hammer squad!) commenting on the recent bust of several high profile ‘business men’ with extensive political connections, namely Paolo Catanio, Frank Zampino and Bernard Trépanier, said that a massive fraud that the men had perpetrated, also involved an unspecified political organization in Québec.

Charest certainly has his hands full these days, what with the city of Montreal rebelling against his authoritarian bill 78, on a nightly basis, and the student strike threatening to spoil the summer tourist season. One can’t help but wonder how all of this might be distracting people from an issue that once was on everyone’s lips, but now seems to be getting a lot less attention. That, of course, doesn’t excuse Charest and his government for their shameful absence from the inquiry that they supposedly committed themselves to.