POLITICS

Quebec's corruption inquiry hears last witness testimony

09/11/2014 02:22 EDT | Updated 11/11/2014 05:59 EST
MONTREAL - Quebec's corruption inquiry — with its propensity for bombshell testimony that sometimes turned the Quebec political and business landscape on its head — has heard from its last witness.

The high-profile probe completed the testimony portion of its public hearings quietly on Thursday with witness No. 189, a Hydro-Quebec forensic accountant.

The low-key windup was a contrast to what many considered the high point of the commission, the recent — and long-awaited — testimony of former construction mogul Tony Accurso. He insisted he didn't cater to organized crime figures or woo politicians for favours on his yacht.

The commission chaired by Justice France Charbonneau now enters a consultative phase before a final report is submitted next April.

A little over two years after it heard from its first witness in June 2012, the inquiry's impact on the province is palpable.

Then-premier Jean Charest, who was under pressure to create the inquiry, ordered it in 2011 to examine corruption in the construction industry and its ties to organized crime and political parties.

The inquiry's chief counsel took a few moments on Thursday to remind people of the commission's mandate, which was to get to the bottom of allegations of corruption related to the awarding and management of public contracts, to look into schemes and to provide solutions on how to combat the problem.

In her address, Sonia LeBel also appeared to make a subtle response to critics who complained that certain big names, such as former premiers Charest, Pauline Marois and Bernard Landry, had not been ordered to testify.

"The commission is independent and free of all outside influence," LeBel said.

LeBel, who wouldn't meet with journalists Thursday, said the commission's team of lawyers and investigators put forth sufficient evidence to identify various corruption and collusion schemes. She said they showed the infiltration of organized crime in the industry and how all of that spread to political party financing.

The highest-ranking former politician to appear was Nathalie Normandeau, a former cabinet minister and deputy premier. Julie Boulet, a former Liberal transport minister who still sits in the legislature, also testified in May.

Testimony heard over 26 months left some reputations tattered, had other people find themselves out of work and at least one longtime politician forced out of office.

Former Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay, faced with damning commission testimony from a former party aide, quit his post in November 2012 after three terms as mayor. As a private citizen, he got his chance to refute the allegations and defend himself during his own appearance in April 2013.

High-profile engineers came to testify about corruption and illicit party financing and, in the days and weeks that followed, quit their posts in disgrace, often announcing their departures in news releases.

The inquiry heard from academics, police officers, municipal officials, union bosses and so-called business-development types. One of them, Guy Cloutier, suggested that Quebec's landmark election-financing laws were often circumvented and so-called turn-key elections — where private companies allowed candidates to step into privately-financed campaigns — were quite normal.

Even an FBI legend, the officer who famously passed himself off as "Donnie Brasco" to mobsters testified. Joseph Pistone's appearance served as a primer on the Mafia's long-standing infiltration of the construction industry.

The inquiry was forced to weave its way around current and pending corruption court cases as it heard from witnesses from all over the province.

It touched on bid-rigging and cartel-like systems of varying sizes that were prevalent in Quebec, taking a particular interest in sidewalks, sewers and asphalt contracts.

The inquiry made a hero out of disgraced construction boss Lino Zambito, whose candid testimony over several days made for numerous bombshells about a Mafia tax on projects, a cut for the municipal party in power and shed light on corrupt city officials who were accepting kickbacks themselves.

All of it drove the price of work projects up in the province.

The inquiry studied the Quebec Federation of Labour’s construction wing that had been infiltrated by organized crime. That testimony produced a wiretap where union bosses alleged they had a deal with the husband of then Parti Quebecois leader — and later premier — Pauline Marois to stop a public inquiry from taking place.

Marois and her husband denied the allegation but the question haunted Marois throughout the 2014 election campaign, which her PQ lost.

The inquiry, which was a daytime fixture on French-language all-news TV channels, also looked at the awarding of the lucrative English-language superhospital contract, the subject of an alleged $22.5 million fraud investigation described by Quebec provincial police as one of the biggest corruption cases in Canada.

Beginning on Monday, the inquiry will hear from various groups such as Quebec's anti-corruption unit and the province's chief electoral officer.

Various organizations and members of the public submitted their proposals for possible solutions and analysis. Some of those people are testifying in person.

The inquiry issued a mid-term report in January saying it was too soon to draw conclusions.

— With files from Canadian Press reporter Lia Levesque