Quebec transport minister won't release damning document

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Andy Riga – March 9, 2012

First published on Sept. 16, 2011.

A new era of transparency was promised by Pierre Moreau when he took over as transport minister.But, a week into the job, Moreau has refused to make public a damning report into collusion in Quebec's construction industry that points the finger at organized crime, construction and engineering firms, Transport Quebec and political parties.

An anti-collusion squad led by former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau prepared the report. Transport Quebec hired him in 2010 to investigate allegations of price-fixing and influence peddling in road contracts.

A handful of media outlets have obtained and published excerpts of Duchesneau's report. But few have read the entire 78-page document.

On Thursday, Moreau told reporters that when he promised more transparency, he was referring to inspection reports - not a document to be used in criminal probes.

The Duchesneau report has been handed to a permanent anti-corruption squad overseeing police investigations across Quebec, said Moreau, adding he received it Wednesday.

He said the report's publication now could interfere with that squad, set up by Premier Jean Charest as an alternative to a public inquiry.

As it is, news of its findings may have harmed police efforts, he added. "The problem is this media coverage, this leak, will mean the report will probably have less of an impact, will be less useful for the investigations" because those involved in collusion now know investigators have uncovered the details of some criminal schemes.

The report says contractors collude to restrict the number of players in the industry and that some firms bid low and then submit inflated supplemental bills to the government, with some of that money eventually ending up in election-campaign coffers.

"My intention is to make sure that this stops and it stops as quickly as possible," Moreau said. "If there are bad apples we have to take them out of the bushel."

The report "doesn't give names, it gives allegations. Whether they regard politicians, civil servants, contractors or engineers, I want them to be charged if they're acting in a criminal way."

Moreau rejected renewed calls for a public inquiry, saying Duchesneau's report proves "a police inquiry can tell us exactly what the schemes are." He noted Duchesneau has sent details of a dozen specific allegations of wrongdoing to the anti-corruption squad.

Moreau defended the government's handling of the corruption issue.

"It is not our government that allowed there to be schemes and rotten apples," he said. "These schemes didn't start yesterday. We (the Charest government) had the courage to say, 'Let's ask someone who is competent and honest to tell us what's happening.' If we gave (Duchesneau) this mandate, it's because we thought he could shed light on things."

The report paints a grim picture of Transport Quebec, whose reputation has already been tarnished by its handling of crumbling infrastructure. The report suggests the ministry is severely understaffed and some employees leak key information to companies bidding on contracts.

"The transport ministry has 6,000 public servants (and) I'm profoundly convinced the vast majority of these people are honest men and women," Moreau said.

He said he will look into revelations the ministry overpays for items such as highway lighting, where a single firm provides most of the equipment. "I want this to change so that we will have lower prices."

Duchesneau's report suggests Quebec political parties are benefiting from collusion, receiving illegal contributions from construction and engineering firms.

"Mr. Duchesneau's report is not pointing at the Liberal Party - it's pointing at the finances of political parties," Moreau said, adding his government has recently toughened electoral laws, increasing penalties for scofflaws.

The Charest government boasts it is spending more on road-infrastructure work than previous governments. Moreau was asked how much of that money goes to fix Quebec's dilapidated roads, overpasses, bridges and tunnels and how much is siphoned off in schemes and political payoffs.

"We don't have, with Mr. Duchesneau's report, a figure of what it is exactly," Moreau responded. "The police inquiry will tell us how much it is and at the same time they will make sure that criminals are going to jail."

Original article on Montreal Gazette website