10/06/2011 11:13 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

Jean Charest weighs options of public inquiry into construction corruption

PARIS - Quebec Premier Jean Charest says he's still weighing all the options on whether to hold a public inquiry into construction corruption, amid mounting speculation that one might be on the way.

Montreal La Presse reported Thursday that the Charest government will announce plans in two weeks for an inquiry that would be held mainly behind closed doors.

Asked about the report by journalists covering his trip to Europe, the premier replied that his government had not yet arrived at a final decision.

"The government will reflect and make choices," Charest said.

"But to suggest the government has already made a choice — no. Have we sent a signal that we're headed toward a commission of inquiry? No, we haven't sent that signal.

"We're reflecting on the options before us, period."

Charest has for two years steadfastly resisted calls for an inquiry; he has repeatedly said the corruption problem is best handled through criminal investigations and changes to rules for public-works contracts and political fundraising.

But since the recent release of an incendiary report by the province's anti-collusion watchdog, which describes the need for an inquiry as urgent, the premier has said he'll consider it.

That abrupt change of tone has fuelled suspense over whether Charest might finally be on the verge of yielding to widespread demands for a probe.

His anti-collusion watchdog, Jacques Duchesneau, has proposed a two-phase inquiry: the first would be held behind closed doors, where witnesses would testify about cases of corruption. The second, to be held in public, would examine policy changes that might avert future corruption.

The premier has since made it clear that any inquiry he calls would be designed with Duchesneau's suggestion in mind.

The names of suspected criminals would be kept under wraps during testimony. That could not only protect police evidence but also perform a politically useful function: preventing a daily television spectacle like the one seen during the Gomery federal sponsorship inquiry.

On Thursday, Charest said he has detected a greater public awareness in recent days of the potential consequences that an inquiry — either "public or private" — might have on police investigations.

Meanwhile, a report by Radio-Canada on Thursday said Duchesneau had asked for — and been granted — an extended vacation.<

But his employer issued a statement later to say the departure in question was simply two weeks' holiday.

The ex-Montreal police chief has been at odds with the boss of the anti-corruption squad that oversees his own unit.

Duchesneau favours an inquiry and suggests the provincial anti-corruption unit should not be run by a police officer. His boss, a longtime police officer, opposes an inquiry.

The pressure on the Charest government has been unrelenting.

On Thursday alone, it faced several accusations in the legislature — including an opposition charge over $1 billion in untendered contracts awarded over the past decade by Hydro-Quebec.

The opposition blamed the government for allowing $200 million in alleged cost overruns, with engineering firms receiving an extra windfall.

The government dismissed the accusation about cost overruns and ascribed the discrepancy to "changes in the mandate" of various contracts.