11/13/2013 05:54 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:56 EST

Quebec government seeks to recoup overpayments to corrupt companies

QUEBEC - The Quebec government has tabled a bill to help it recoup hundreds of millions of dollars that were overpaid to construction companies involved in wrongdoing.

The proposed law aims to ease repayments but also facilitate civil proceedings in the absence of voluntary admissions of guilt.

Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud said Wednesday the bill would allow prosecutors to use facts revealed in the Charbonneau Commission on corruption in the construction industry.

He said that if companies want to avoid prosecution, they can voluntarily participate in a reimbursement program that will be administered by an independent head, such as a former judge. However, any involvement will not preclude possible criminal charges against individuals.

Treasury Board President Stephane Bedard said involvement in the reimbursement program would not affect how contracts are awarded.

"It helps them to improve their image, to show that they are good corporate citizens," Bedard said of the companies. "If they find errors by their directors, their employees, it shows they are willing to make amends."

For the last year, companies wanting to obtain public contracts had to get authorization from the Autorite des marches financiers, the provincial securities regulator, which could reject a firm if questions of integrity arose.

That insistence on honesty will continue, Bedard said.

"You cannot buy integrity in Quebec," he said. "That is clear."

The bill would allow the government to pursue a company on behalf of any of its departments or municipalities that have been the victims of wrongdoing.

"We believe this will permit an efficient use of the collective resources of the government and public organizations and a reduction of costs without excessive use of judicial resources, which are already stretched," said St-Arnaud.

The bill would also introduce the presumption of damages which the government could use in court cases.

St-Arnaud said it would be up to a company to demonstrate the exact amount of damages or it would be subject to a method of calculation set by the government.