MONTREAL - A long-awaited Quebec public inquiry has made its first political dent in the Charest government, with a star witness Thursday offering a damning description of the attitude it held behind closed doors about fighting corruption.
There has been endless speculation that the Charest Liberals might rush into an election before the corruption inquiry got underway, so that they might face voters before sustaining any collateral damage from any bombshells dropped on the witness stand.
It could be getting late.
The government has already sustained its first nick. It came Thursday amid testimony from a prominent civil servant, a onetime federal official and Montreal police chief who most recently worked for the provincial government.
Jacques Duchesneau put an end to a political mystery that had captivated Quebecers: Who leaked that incendiary document to the media last fall?
It was a report he had authored — an internal study, not intended for public viewing, that spoke of a jaw-dropping volume of corruption in the construction industry, its ties to Mafia cash, and the illegal use of that cash to fund political parties.
The document created such public disgust that it finally forced Premier Jean Charest to relent, after two years of resistance, and call a public inquiry.
So who leaked the document? It turns out the author did it.
Duchesneau revealed himself as the man who transmitted his own report to select media — and he said he did it because the government clearly didn't care about its contents.
He testified that when he tried last year to brief his supervisor, the transport minister, about the findings of his investigation into the construction industry, the minister was coldly indifferent. Duchesneau had been hired by the Quebec government to look into the collusion allegations.
At one meeting, he said, then-transport minister Sam Hamad was staring out the window while he talked. He said the minister later refused to look at his report. He said Hamad wouldn't even physically touch the document with his hands, and promised his assistants would deal with it.
Hamad expressed disappointment at Duschesneau's recollection of events Thursday. He said there's proof the government cared about the document — and that proof is that it has acted on all 44 of the recommendations Duschesneau made.
Duchesneau has different memories of interactions with Hamad.
"If I start talking to you and you look outside to see if it's nice outside, it affects (my) concentration," Duchesneau said, describing a meeting with Hamad, during his second day of testimony.
He said he quickly concluded it wasn't even worth discussing one particular topic with Hamad — that of illegal political financing, which he said clearly bored the minister.
At one point, Duchesneau said he hadn't heard from his boss for a year. He said he joked to Hamad: "If you lost my phone number, somebody could have given it to you."
Duchesneau said he eventually realized he had only two options — leak the report, or watch it be ignored.
In the end, it wasn't ignored at all. It caused a media sensation, and such intense political pressure that within days Charest had called a public inquiry.
The report laid out an intricate financial web in which cash from crime groups like the Mafia was laundered in the construction industry, and that money wound up supporting political parties. It described an overworked civil service that couldn't handle the myriad schemes going on in the construction industry.
One thing that report did not do was name names. That's expected at the inquiry. Duchesneau didn't quite go there Thursday — at least not yet. His testimony wrapped up at noon and is expected to resume Monday morning.
While he was on the stand, Duchesneau explained why he chose to leak the document that rattled Quebec last fall. The 72-page report was originally sent to Radio-Canada, before being posted on the Internet and reported by other media.
"The members of this team didn't do this work to have (the report) sit on a shelf," said Duchesneau, saying he took full responsibility for the leak of a final draft.
"After my meeting with minister Hamad, I was convinced that it was heading for a shelf."
The inquiry is now investigating corruption in the construction industry, and its ties to political parties and organized crime. Duchesneau testified that those in the industry who didn't go along with collusion schemes were often frozen out financially and even physically harmed.
Duchesneau said honest contractors were forced to respect the rules imposed by a select few he did not name. If contractors bid on a project when others told them not to, they paid a price.
Duchesneau says there have been cases of entrepreneurs who have been physically threatened and beaten. Others were victims of "economic asphyxiation," unable to get insurance or money to finish a job.
Duchesneau said he was able to identify 66 different strategies used to circumvent the formal rules, but added that there were likely more than 100 different schemes in total.
The Quebec government says it's working to thwart them all.
Numerous procurement and political-fundraising policies have been implemented since 2009.
A government-created police squad has arrested numerous actors in the world of construction and municipal politics, with some of those arrested also having ties to provincial parties.
Hamad said he doesn't understand how his former employee might have found him indifferent.
"It's too bad that he had that impression — because it wasn't the case," Hamad said.
"He produced a good report, the proof being that we introduced 44 of the 44 recommendations he made... So it's unfortunate that he had that impression."
The inquiry will pause next week for its summer break, and it resumes in mid-September. There are also rumours Charest might call an election for mid-September. He was re-elected in late 2008 and his mandate expires at the end of 2013.
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