A race to the bottom at the Charbonneau inquiry

With the focus on construction unions, pressure shifts to the PQ

The mandate of the Charbonneau inquiry is a straightforward mouthful: “Commission of inquiry into the awarding and managing of public contracts in the construction industry.” Yet in casting what amounts to a protologist’s eye at the province’s demonstrably corrupt construction industry, the commission can’t help but be a constant political liability to be managed by the powers that be—or have been. Both the governing Parti Québécois and the formerly governing Liberal Party of Quebec have lawyers stationed in the hearing room to monitor and mitigate what is said.

It’s why media and politicos (especially those lawyers) waited eagerly today to hear from Sonia Lebel. On the first day of the commission’s fall session the chief prosecutor set out the broad strokes of the commission’s investigatory path. Before the summer break, the inquiry concentrated on price-fixing schemes in Montreal and Laval, as well as illegal political fundraising at the municipal and provincial level.

Provincial Liberals must have breathed a sigh of relief today when Lebel confirmed the coming session will concentrate on construction unions. Unions are strictly the Parti Québécois domain; nearly every one in the province supports (tacitly or otherwise) the party’s sovereignty project, and most unofficially endorse the party come election time. The commission’s decision to concentrate on the infiltration of organized crime into the union movement, as Lebel said, is a qualified get-out-of-jail-free card for the embattled Liberal Party.

If one can keep score of such sordid things, then the Liberal Party of Quebec has “won” the race to the bottom. The party didn’t invent “straw man” donations—in which employees of the province’s engineering and construction firms donated to political parties, to be reimbursed by their employer—it certainly perfected the concept.

According to a report by the province’s electoral authority, the LPQ harvested $7.3 million of the roughly $13 million in donations from the province’s engineering and construction companies between 2006 and 2011. Though not all the donations are necessarily illegal, it’s worth noting how new laws limiting the size and source of donations have most affected the LPQ. (Corporate donations are illegal in Quebec.) The PQ, meanwhile, could content itself with coming in a distant second in allegedly dodgy donations, with $2 million, and for having put into effect the new fundraising laws since taking power last September.

Concentrating on corruption within the unions will shift the pressure to the Parti Québécois—though the commission has a habit of going on seemingly random and often damaging tangents. Today, for example, we heard from Marc-André Gélinas, a VP with the engineering firm Aecom. He testified about a price-fixing system that he said involved Aecom and three other engineering firms in Gatineau, Quebec. Between 2002 and 2008, Gélinas oversaw the sophisticated scheme through which the firms colluded to “take turns” on municipal and provincial construction contracts.

To the regular (read: jaded) observer of commission proceedings, the details were all too familiar. So was Gélinas’ most quotable bit about who solicited Aecom  three or four times a year—more during election cycles. “It was always the same party,” he testified. Which party? “The Liberal Party of Quebec.”

It’s perhaps the most jaded observation: the daily findings of the commission are often but partisan fodder for two warring political parties. But take heart: at least their put-upon lawyers have plenty of work.