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Quebec's corruption probe report raises questions on federal contracts

OTTAWA — The federal sphere may have been excluded from Quebec's massive corruption inquiry, but the Charbonneau commission's final report shows federal money would not have been immune.

Over the three years of the commission's work, Justice France Charbonneau carefully avoided stepping into the realm of federal politics and federal construction contracts — it was not her mandate. Former spokespersons for the Conservative government repeatedly suggested there was no cause for concern on Ottawa's side.

And yet the voluminous report, detailing collusion in the construction and engineering industries and its financing of political parties, contained glimpses into areas that directly overlap with federal interests.

Money paid out under the Canada-Quebec Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund wound up being subject to political influence by provincial ministers, the report details. A former political aide said that certain projects were evaluated based only on "political criteria," and government ridings were more likely to be tapped for funding.

A 2009-10 federal audit of that same fund found no serious problems.

An early look at another set of 91 Montreal sewer contracts mentioned during the first months of the commission's work showed that 15 had received federal funding, ranging from $200,000 to more than $700,000.

There were ample indications that some of the same engineering firms helping to generously finance provincial and municipal politicians in the hopes of securing contracts, were also sending money to federal parties.

The commission explained that engineering firms would help put municipal officials in the same room with provincial ministers, so that they might push for infrastructure funding they needed. Later, the engineering firms would get their backs scratched with lucrative contracts.

The firm Roche told the commission that every year on opening day for the Montreal Expos, it would organize get-togethers between mayors and municipal managers with both federal and provincial ministers.

An engineer from the firm Tecsult testified that he and his wife gave the Parti Quebecois and Quebec Liberal party $20,000 over a five year span, but also that they gave to federal parties. He said it was necessary in order for the firms to land contracts.

Annie Trepanier, a spokesperson for Public Works Minister Judy Foote, said the government had no immediate comment while it reviews the report.

NDP ethics critic Alexandre Boulerice said he would like to see the federal government increase the powers of the Competition Bureau of Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer to combat corruption. The competition bureau has already been involved in investigations led by Quebec's anti-corruption unit and said it was watching the commission's proceedings closely.

Boulerice rejected Ottawa's previous position that the province has control over who gets contracts.

"We'd like to see the federal government take more responsibility," Boulerice said of Ottawa's approach. "It's always responsible for public money — it should be a more active partner."

He added that the government should ensure that it keeps engineering and construction expertise in-house, so that experts can flag when something seems amiss in a contract.

Some of the donations from engineering figures that made their way through to political parties came during the political cocktail circuit.

A Canadian Press analysis in 2012 showed that dozens of employees from the same Quebec engineering firms highlighted during the inquiry also donated to the federal Conservatives.

Corporate donations are banned federally, but having individuals in a firm donate to a party is possible way around that. Giving another person money so they can in turn make a political donation is against the law.

The Conservative association in Montreal's Laurier-Sainte-Marie riding, one of the most left-leaning in the country, wound up pulling in $288,823.37 in donations in 2009.

Some of those funds were linked to former prime minister Stephen Harper's appearance at a fundraiser attended by dozens of Quebec engineering executives. That same morning, then-public works minister Christian Paradis announced a new engineering contract for the Champlain Bridge.

Dessau's former vice-president Rosaire Sauriol, who was on the guest list at that 2009 Harper fundraiser, told the commission that not participating in political financial events meant "the loss of market access." He also testified that he used fake billing schemes to channel money to federal parties.

One of the recommendations in the Charbonneau report is to prohibit provincial and municipal politicians and officials from announcing contracts, subsidies and projects during fundraising events. It also would like to require individuals to list their name of their employer when they make a donation.

Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press

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