The message was in the image, not in the words. It was at once powerful and comical. And it went to the heart of the matter. Jacques Duchesneau had been testifying Thursday morning before the Charbonneau Commission into corrupt practices in the construction industry when he suddenly began to swim. Really.
His arms began moving in the fashion of a breast stroker. It’s not an easy thing to do in a tight-fitting suit. But there he was struggling through an imaginary ocean. His point was immediately clear. This is us. The taxpayer. The little guy. Desperately trying to stay afloat.
Then, suddenly, he reversed the motion. Instead of moving outward, his arms were suddenly moving inward. He had become a bloated hoarder or triumphant poker player sweeping up his winnings. It was Duchesneau’s depiction of the construction kingpin. When the game is fixed, the guy who marks the cards is always the winner.
The audience laughed. But Duchesneau was deadly serious.
For 18 months beginning in 2010, he investigated public construction contracting and, he says, it didn’t take long before he got the cut of this “secretive world.”
His essential message to the Charbonneau Commission is over the years Quebec has quietly watched and in many ways encouraged a clandestine empire of construction and engineering companies take complete control over the province’s multibillion-dollar annual construction budget, growing fabulously wealthy as they corrupt government and plunder the taxpayer.
Without naming names, the former Montreal police chief told the commission these companies are all interconnected through common ownership, boards of directors and administrators. One company has 70 affiliates, he noted in apparent astonishment. Their engineering firms design the contract specifications, their construction companies win the contracts and their technical experts approve the work.
“It’s a vicious circle,” he said several times.
He noted that these interconnections can easily be found by scraping data off public databases. He and his team did just that, creating a vast organigram that details the ties among all the major engineering and construction companies.
The commission has put the chart under seal.
But Duchesneau gave several examples of what his chart reveals.
He discovered, for instance, that one government contract garnered three bids from three companies, all of which were owned by the same person. Again, he mentioned no names.
“When you are doing business with a company, do you really know who you are in business with?” he asked the commission.
His answer: “My experience over the 18 months that I was (head of the anti-collusion investigation) has taught me that without that information, we cannot ask a civil servant who sees a contract tender to take a clear decision.”
The hundreds of civil servants responsible for public contracts are not unaware of the collusive world in which they operate, he told the commission. In fact, much of the information he collected for his report came from them. Some came from workers on the construction sites. But many refused to talk because they worried that their bosses were party to the corruption schemes.
After he wrote the first version of his report, eight senior officials in the Transport Department reviewed it and gave suggestions.
Under questioning from commissioners France Charbonneau and Renaud Lachance, Duchesneau denied there had been any government interference in his report. He said everyone was seeking the truth. The suggested changes or additions were “positive and even the commentary that was negative was really positive.”
But when he presented the final report to then transport minister Sam Hamad, the minister appeared uninterested. Duchesneau said that when he recited his recommendations to Hamad, the minister “wasn’t even listening.”
“I was convinced after the meeting with the minister that the report would be shelved,” he told the commission.
So, he said, he did what he thought he had to do.
“I leaked the report to a reporter,” he admitted, somewhat hesitantly, his chin not jutting out quite as far as it did in his earlier testimony.
Hamad, who is now minister of economic development, said later Thursday that Duchesneau misinterpreted his response to the report.
“It’s regrettable that he got that impression,” he said. “It wasn’t the case for me.”
He added that Duchesneau “produced a good report and the proof is that we put in place 44 of the 44 recommendations that Mr. Duchesneau made.”
Most of Duchesneau’s testimony has been based on unsourced material and on unnamed sources. But there are statistics whose implication cannot be denied. One is especially telling and Duchesneau repeated it several times during his testimony. He thinks it tells the whole story.
In 2008, the average winning tender was 1.7 per cent below the estimated price. In 2010, when the government created the anti-corruption and anti-collusion investigative squads, that figure had dropped to 17.2 per cent below the estimates, saving the taxpayer more than $300 million.
The thieves, he said, were running for cover.
Philip Authier of The Gazette contributed to this report