In his third day on the witness stand Monday, Jacques Duchesneau described an industry that operated like a cartel when it came to public works — fixing prices, driving up costs and squeezing out honest competitors.
Such collusion was made easier, he said, by the reality of an overworked, underqualified civil service that failed to scrutinize the industry.
The main themes of Monday's testimony had already been laid out in the devastating report that Duchesneau wrote last year, then leaked to the media, which was the final straw that broke the Charest government's resistance and forced it to call an inquiry.
What that report did not contain was company names. Duschesneau finally began revealing them Monday, in his latest day of testimony.
Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief who worked for the provincial anti-collusion squad, said his investigating team opened 138 files and sent police 17 that it thought might warrant criminal investigations.
He said two companies controlled the asphalt market in parts of Quebec — DJL and Sintra, both subsidiaries of different French construction giants.
In some parts of Quebec, Duchesneau said, firms that wanted to bid on asphalt contracts couldn't even get a price quote for raw materials, because certain companies not only controlled access to the materials but were also bidding on contracts.
Duchesneau described another pattern that kept emerging: companies would win construction contracts with impossibly low bids then, over time, would drive up the final price tag through all sorts of contract clauses.
Finding loopholes was even a specialized industry, apparently.
"One of our informants identified two people at two companies who specialized in doing nothing but that: seeking loopholes in the plans and estimates to be able to ask for (extra money)," testified Annie Trudel, a member of Duchesneau's team.
"They're even suspected of being paid a 10 per cent commission on the amount of the extras they find."
In one account, Duchesneau described how the engineering firm Dessau was supposed to monitor work done by Simard-Beaudry Construction Inc., which was renovating a bridge. But the inspector was never hired, he said. That caused delays for Simard-Beaudry — which as a result managed to claim $1.1 million in penalties from the provincial government.
Simard-Beaudry has temporarily lost its ability to perform construction work in the province after pleading guilty to tax evasion in 2010. Its owner, Tony Accurso, faces a variety of criminal charges over alleged collusion in another project.
In the world of Quebec public-works contracts, Duchesneau explained, such costly errors long went unpunished. A severe shortage of competent engineers at Quebec's Transport Department have left it ill-equipped to detect and prevent corruption, he said.
Duchesneau said engineers who work for the province are often young, inexperienced and lack the proper educational background.
To make matters worse, he said, they often find themselves dealing with former superiors who've jumped to the private sector. Senior employees would jump straight to higher-paying jobs at firms that were bidding on government contracts, he said.
"People left the department and, the next week, they were already with private firms. This caused a problem on the ethical front, at the very least, and reduced expertise," said Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief and federal transportation-safety official.
Duchesneau said there was so much paperwork to do, engineers didn't have time to go actual sites as often as they'd like. He said the shortage of government expertise has also forced municipalities to use private engineering firms, which often suggest work that isn't necessary.
As for the background of employees hired by the Transport Department, it sometimes left a little to be desired. Instead of civil engineers, he said, the government was hiring the wrong types of experts.
"They went to get engineers with different specialties not necessarily linked to infrastructure. Whether it's electrical engineering, computer engineering," said Duchesneau, who most recently authored an anti-corruption report for the province.
"There was even a case of one nuclear engineer."
Duchesneau was testifying for a third day, accompanied by two of his former employees who are discussing cases of collusion between entrepreneurs or a lack of competition in bidding.
Last week, he told the inquiry that the provincial transport minister seemed bored and indifferent to his findings on corruption. He said he became so frustrated that he leaked his own report to the media — which swiftly caused a public outcry and prompted Premier Jean Charest to call an inquiry.
Sam Hamad, who was transport minister at the time, told reporters that he finds such recollections puzzling — given that the Charest government had moved to implement all of Duchesneau's recommendations.
The commission will continue hearing Duchesneau for the rest of the week before adjourning until mid-September.
On Monday, Duchesneau's team described another project near Montreal involving the companies Doncar and CJRB.
One company submitted the lowest bid but was disqualified from the contract, they said. So the second-lowest bidder won the contract — but it didn't do the work, and subcontracted the task back to the first company.
End result: the first company got the same contract at a higher price. The companies had some of the same shareholders, testified Duchesneau's colleague, Trudel.
-With files from Lia LevesqueSuggest a correction