MONTREAL – The man initially tasked by the Quebec government to probe corruption in the province wasn’t given a budget or even a computer and was relegated to “squatting” for office space.
The revelations from Jacques Duchesneau raised questions on Wednesday about the provincial government’s level of commitment to tackling corruption, two years ago, after sensational news reports first surfaced about ties between organized crime and the construction industry in Quebec.
That was well before the government, under sustained public pressure, called a public inquiry — where Duchesneau was testifying Wednesday.
Duchesneau, who headed the province’s newly created anti-collusion unit in 2010-2011, testified that he had few resources at the outset of his investigation. The one-time Montreal police chief is the first high-profile witness to take the stand at the inquiry into allegations of widespread corruption in the construction industry, and its alleged ties to political parties and organized crime.
Throughout his 18 months leading the unit, Duchesneau said it never had dedicated funds and was never given its own office space — it was left “squatting” in government offices in Montreal.
Among the other logistical challenges his unit faced as it began its work: no computers, an ambiguous legal status, and no vehicles which forced employees to drive to construction sites in their own personal cars.
“We lacked the means to work effectively,” Duchesneau told the commission. “We didn’t even have identity cards, or business cards.”
As Duchesneau’s frustration mounted, so did the pressure to produce results. And sources weren’t talking — Duschesneau said they were scared.
“We were at a dead end after three months of work,” he said.
Finally, in the summer of 2010, he took a list of complaints to senior bureaucrats at the Transport Department, to which the anti-collusion was responsible. The meeting resulted in increased legal powers, giving his staff official status as investigators.
But he was also told to avoid using the new powers because they were shrouded in “legal ambiguity.”
More than once in his testimony Duscheneau suggested his unit had an “enemy.” He pointed out that the “enemy” wasn’t the civil servants in the Transport Department. He failed to specify who, if anyone, that enemy actually was.
Duchesneau did, however, acknowledge that his relationship with the Liberal government was strained almost from the start.
He refused to sign a document that made him swear he had no friends in the world of organized crime. Duchesneau said he found the document insulting, given he had led major operations against the Mafia and other criminal groups.
“I had so many friends in organized crime,” he told the inquiry, “they wanted to kill me.”
Eventually, an incendiary internal report prepared by the anti-collusion unit was leaked to journalists in late 2011. It had a bombshell effect in the media. It stunned the political class by linking it to organized crime, and contributed to the immense public pressure that forced the Liberals to finally hold a public inquiry.
Duchesneau was eventually relieved of his duties at the anti-collusion unit once that organization was absorbed by the government’s permanent anti-corruption body. The body has since made several dozen arrests, including prominent municipal officials in and around Montreal, people tied to political parties, and construction-industry players.
He will continue testifying Thursday.
The inquiry, which is being headed by Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau, will be hearing witnesses until an upcoming summer recess.
Many political observers expect Premier Jean Charest will time an election call before the fall, to avoid campaigning while witnesses are testifying at the inquiry. He has until the end of 2013 to hold a general election.