09/17/2012 11:55 EDT | Updated 11/17/2012 05:12 EST

Quebec corruption inquiry seeks to protect witnesses

Justice France Charbonneau, the head of the public inquiry into allegations of corruption in Quebec's construction industry, said that she will take extraordinary measures to protect witnesses that appear before the inquiry in the coming months.

Quebec's corruption inquiry got underway on Monday after a three-month summer hiatus.

Charbonneau said the commission will hear from an estimated 50 witnesses this fall, and while some have already been named in earlier media reports, she has asked journalists to refrain from publishing or broadcasting the names of witnesses before they testify, unless they are named publicly by the commission.

"We can not allow the safety and integrity of witnesses heard by the commission to be put in danger," Charbonneau said.

The CBC and its French-language arm, Radio-Canada, has said it will take Charbonneau's request into consideration on a case-by-case basis in its coverage of the commission's proceedings.

In some cases, the prosecution may ask for a publication ban on testimony, said Sonia Lebel, a prosecutor for the commission. She added the commission may seek to have some witnesses appear behind closed doors.

Elected officials won't escape scrutiny

Charbonneau said the commission will focus in the weeks to come on how organized crime has infiltrated the construction industry, both in Quebec and in other parts of the world.

Among the witnesses expected to testify are investigators from the Sûreté du Québec, the RCMP and York police, along with an Italian expert on the workings of the Mafia in that country.

The commission said it wants to expose the structure of organized crime groups, including the Quebec Mafia, in order to determine how these groups target, infiltrate and manipulate various organizations, including unions.

"We will delve into the awarding of contracts, collusion between entrepreneurs, the role of unions, the corruption of civil servants and elected officials, political party financing at both the municipal and provincial levels," Lebel said.

Charbonneau said the commission will hear from witnesses who will testify about contracts awarded by the city of Montreal for asphalt, sidewalk construction and sewers.

"Certain (witnesses) will talk to us about elected officials from certain cities — notably those in Laval and Montreal," Charbonneau said. "Others will inform us about how engineering firms operate in municipalities which do not have the necessary resources to do an independent analysis of their needs."

The testimony will show that "organized crime is not attacking the system, it is using the system and taking advantage of its weaknesses," said Lebel.

Investigations still underway elsewhere in Quebec

Charbonneau said even as the hearings get underway, commission investigators are continuing to look into allegations of corruption in other regions of Quebec, including the North Shore, Abitibi, Trois-Rivières, the Eastern Townships and Quebec City.

The first round of hearings, which ended in the spring, began with five days of testimony from Jacques Duchesneau, the former head of Quebec's anti-collusion squad.

Duchesneau won a seat in the National Assembly for the fledgling Coalition Avenir Québec in the Sept. 4 general election.