MONTREAL – The former head of Quebec’s Federation of Labour is on the witness stand at Quebec’s corruption inquiry.
Michel Arsenault’s testimony has been hotly anticipated as the inquiry has taken a close look at allegations of organized crime infiltration at the province’s largest union via its construction wing.
Arsenault began testifying this morning by discussing his friendship with former construction magnate Tony Accurso, who has been portrayed at the inquiry as having considerable sway over the union’s billion-dollar Solidarity Fund.
But the former union boss has sought to minimize the influence of the 600,000-strong labour union and denies that governments are fearful of its power.
Arsenault didn’t deny having access to the premier’s office as well as those of other senior ministers, but said it was no different than other unions. He said he didn’t exploit the access.
During a confrontational morning of testimony with the inquiry counsel, Arsenault sprung to the defence of the $9.7 billion fund, which he presided over in addition to the union during his time at the helm.
Arsenault says he doesn’t see a risk of conflict of interest in having one person hold both influential positions and says any changes are up to the new union brass to decide.
But he doesn’t believe any major changes are necessary, using an English expression to illustrate his opinion.
“‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’, as the English say,” Arsenault told the inquiry. “The fund is doing well. They are able to improve their procedures internally.”
He says many measures were brought in around 2009 to assure the majority of board members are people from outside the union.
Arsenault, who retired from his post last year, says a union presence is necessary for the well-being of the fund, which he credits with saving or maintaining 500,000 jobs in the province since its inception in 1983.
“Our report card is good, not perfect but not bad,” he said.
Arsenault has come up repeatedly in wiretap conversations at the inquiry.
In one last week, he was overheard in a 2009 conversation discussing a deal with “Blanchet” to thwart a possible corruption inquiry.
That was a reference to Premier Pauline Marois’ husband, Claude Blanchet, a director at the labour federation’s Solidarity Fund from 1983 to 1997.
Arsenault was also confident that Marois and her Parti Quebecois, then in opposition at the legislature, could be convinced to oppose an inquiry.
“The PQ won’t touch this,” Arsenault told Jean Lavallee, ex-president of the labour federation’s construction wing. “I’ll talk to Pauline.”
Marois and the PQ have said there was no deal.