The public inquiry into allegations of corruption in Quebec's construction industry got underway today with commissioner France Charbonneau stressing repeatedly that the hearings will be free of government interference.
"The Quebec government created this commission of inquiry, which is totally impartial and independent, well removed from any political considerations," she told a room full of journalists and inquiry staff.
"Nobody can tell [the inquiry] what to do, whom to interrogate or how to investigate."
She expressed the desire of the commission to denounce and correct the flaws in Quebec's public-procurement system. Part of its mandate includes interviewing experts and examining international practices.
Charbonneau explained that the inquiry cannot, under its mandate, examine agencies of the government of Canada. But she pointed out that it can explore projects that received both provincial and federal funding.
The commission has a broad mandate to look at how public contracts were awarded in the Quebec industry over the last 15 years.
It is expected to touch on possible links between organized crime and politicians and political parties, engineering and consulting firms, labour unions, the Quebec Transport Ministry and other government departments.
Many expect the inquiry will implicate dozens of businesses, governments and political parties in dirty dealings.
"We are very aware of the public's expectations as far as the work of the commission goes," said Sylvain Lussier, chief counsel for the commission. "But the work of the inquiry will take several months."
Fraud suspects could testify
The commission's powers include the right to compel witnesses to testify, meaning potential witnesses already facing fraud-related charges could be expected to take the stand.
They include former politicians such as Frank Zampino — Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay's right-hand man at Montreal city hall until his resignation in 2008 — and construction magnates Paolo Catania, arrested along with Zampino on May 14, and Tony Accurso.
His business empire also operates in Ontario and Alberta, where it's involved in building natural gas pipelines.
It's widely expected that Tremblay will be among those also called to testify.
The public will not be informed of who is to testify until 48 hours before most witnesses take the stand.
While the commission's final report, expected in late 2013, is allowed to make recommendations, it's not a court of law, so it is not entitled to find anyone guilty.
Premier Jean Charest resisted demands for the inquiry for two years before finally bowing to public pressure in October 2011.
One of the first witnesses expected to take the stand when testimony gets underway in June is Jacques Duchesneau, the former head of the Quebec Transport Ministry's anti-corruption unit.
It was his report and explosive testimony on collusion and backroom dealings that helped to force Charest's hand.