POLITICS
11/09/2011 04:13 EST | Updated 01/09/2012 05:12 EST

Quebec corruption inquiry gets going; team named, legal powers given

QUEBEC - Quebec's corruption inquiry took several steps forward Wednesday as the provincial government added members to its staff and made good on a promise to give it more power.

The inquiry, which was recently announced by Premier Jean Charest after intense public pressure, is being presided by Quebec judge France Charbonneau.

The government announced Wednesday that cabinet has officially granted sweeping powers to Charbonneau.

That move came as no surprise: Charest recently promised, amid a public backlash, that he would grant her the power to subpoena witnesses and also offer them legal immunity over their testimony. Wednesday's announcement made good on that promise.

The government also announced Wednesday that, on Charbonneau's advice, it would be appointing two commissioners to assist the inquiry: McGill University constitutional scholar Roderick Macdonald, and the province's current auditor-general Renaud Lachance.

The public inquiry comes after two years of scandals in Quebec involving illicit ties between organized crime, the construction industry, and political parties.

The original pledge that there would be an inquiry earned Charest no plaudits — only scorn.

Even members of his own party grumbled that the terms of the inquiry offered criminals a gigantic loophole to avoid testifying, and an equally big reason not to bother showing up. Under the original plan, Charbonneau could not compel witness; and everything they said could have been used against them in a court of law.

Charest quickly relented, telling a Liberal party convention that he was open to amending the rules. The promise earned him a standing ovation.

Wednesday's announcement made it official: the loophole and the disincentive for witnesses to appear will both be corrected.