MONTREAL — Quebec is in the market for its very own Eliot Ness. The scandal-weary province has announced the creation of its own team of untouchables, a new anti-corruption squad dubbed the first of its kind in Canada.
The Liberal government plans to nearly double the number of people tasked with rooting out corruption and investigating allegations of influence-peddling and collusion.
What it needs now is a leader for a squad that will receive $31.5 million a year in public funding and, without a doubt, operate under the glare of public scrutiny.
The government said Friday it's seeking a commissioner to serve a five-year term leading the unit, modeled on one of the oldest law-enforcement organizations in the U.S. - New York City's Department of Investigation.
It's looking for a few qualities in a new leader, who will be tasked with looking into myriad allegations of crooked public officials, corrupt politically-connected construction firms, and organized-crime groups like the Mafia.
Key among those coveted qualities are experience, knowledge of law enforcement and, of course, integrity.
Quebec's Liberal government, under constant fire from the Opposition to launch a public inquiry into rampant allegations of corruption in the province's construction industry, is calling the permanent squad a better option.
"There were a lot of problems with a public inquiry, notably that people who would come to testify would have immunity," said Public Security Minister Robert Dutil.
"It's not the only problem (with an inquiry), but it didn't make sense to put our best investigators on these cases and then have them not be able to continue to gather evidence on the ground."
The province looked around for ideas before deciding on a model based on New York City's Department of Investigation.
That department is non-partisan and independent, tasked with rooting out corruption in public institutions.
The organization is one of the oldest in the United States, its origins dating back to the notorious Tammany Hall. It was created in 1870 following a scandal involving William "Boss" Tweed, a politician who skimmed millions from New York's coffers.
Quebec's squad will include a team of 22 Crown prosecutors whose sole job will be to prosecute corruption cases.
However, the province's prosecutors - currently on strike - are balking at joining the squad, particularly if back-to-work legislation cuts off current contract negotiations.
Other squad members will be employees of the provincial revenue and transport departments, and construction and building-code authorities.
Police will also be integral to the group, namely Operation Hammer, the ongoing police investigation into corruption scandals.
The Charest government announced Hammer over a year ago and it has already yielded a number of arrests.
But that hasn't quelled widespread demands for a broader public inquiry. The government, which has been on the defensive, said this new effort will send the message that corruption isn't tolerated in Quebec.
The Opposition parties in Quebec City appeared unimpressed with the announcement.
The Action democratique du Quebec's Sylvie Roy called the announcement a recycling of the Operation Hammer announcement.
The Parti Quebecois' Stephane Bergeron said the squad was just another diversion tactic from a government desperate to avoid what a vast majority of Quebecers really want: a public inquiry into the construction industry.
But one veteran police investigator said these large units have a history of success in Quebec, particularly during the infamous biker wars a decade ago.
"These mixed squads tend to better manage information and distribute investigations accordingly," said Insp. Denis Morin, who is in charge of the Hammer squad.
Information-gathering has been a problem.
The Liberals are, therefore, also proposing legislation that would protect whistle-blowers and allow civil servants to break their oath of confidentiality and report allegations of corruption.
Dutil said there are certain criteria for the new job: integrity beyond reproach, experience, and a willingness to take on a complicated task.
The head of Quebec's provincial police added that the new commissioner must have an intimate knowledge of the law and law enforcement.
"It's important that the person that's hired has knowledge of the police milieu, of the legal milieu, and to understand the hurdles we face," said Richard Deschenes.