Allegations of corruption in Quebec’s construction industry are so rampant that the province deemed it necessary to launch a public inquiry.
Established last fall by Quebec Premier Jean Charest, the Charbonneau inquiry — chaired by Justice France Charbonneau of Quebec Superior Court — will hear opening comments on May 22.
The government has given the inquiry two years to examine allegations of corruption in the construction industry and possible links with political party financing dating back 15 years. One issue the inquiry will examine is the extent of the influence of organized crime groups, like the Mafia, in public works projects.
The commission’s hearings begin in the wake of a series of high-profile arrests.
In April, Quebec’s Permanent Anti-Corruption Unit (known by the French-language acronym UPAC) arrested 14 people, among them construction entrepreneur Antonio (Tony) Accurso, on charges of corruption, fraud, conspiracy and bribery.
On May 17, UPAC arrested an additional nine people, including building magnate Paolo Catania, former city executive committee chairman Frank Zampino and Bernard Trépanier, a former top fundraiser for Union Montréal, the municipal party of Montreal’s current mayor, Gérald Tremblay.
In April, the inquiry won the right to hear RCMP evidence, which includes 1.5 million wiretapped phone conversations and 1,500 surveillance videos.
The commission has not revealed who is expected to testify at the hearings, but has said that journalists will learn the names of witnesses approximately 48 hours before they are scheduled to appear.
Here are some of the key players in the inquiry.
Justice France Charbonneau
Prior to becoming a Superior Court judge in 2004, the Montreal-born Charbonneau had a reputation as a fierce prosecutor. She handled more than 80 murder cases, though none more prominent than that of Hells Angels kingpin Maurice (Mom) Boucher, whom she successfully prosecuted in 2002 in the murder of two prison guards.
She was personally appointed by Charest to lead the corruption inquiry.
Quebec entrepreneur Antonio (Tony) Accurso's name has been associated with several of the province’s biggest building firms, including Simard-Beaudry Construction, Constructions Louisbourg and Construction Marton.
Accurso used his luxury yacht, Touch, to entertain both business and city officials. One of them included then-Montreal executive committee chairman Frank Zampino.
In 2010, Louisbourg and Simard-Beaudry pleaded guilty to tax evasion. According to an agreed statement of facts, some of the expenses written off were related to Accurso's yacht, Touch.
Accurso was arrested in April after a UPAC investigation found a system that, according to Sûreté du Québec Lt. Guy Lapointe, allowed "certain companies to gain an advantage toward the attribution of lucrative municipal contracts" in Mascouche, a city northeast of Montreal.
The 49-year-old head of Montreal-based firm Construction Frank Catania & Associates was arrested on May 17 on charges of fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust. In 2007, Construction Frank Catania won a bid for a 38-hectare piece of city-owned land in Montreal’s east end, where the company was going to develop the Faubourg Contrecoeur condominium project.
It has been alleged that city officials fed information to the company to ensure it won the bid at a fraction of the property’s market value — the property was assessed at $31 million, but Construction Frank Catania only paid $4.4 million. (The city lost $5 million on the sale, according to an auditor’s report.) City officials are alleged to have received about $1 million in cash and gifts in return.
Zampino started in municipal politics in 1986, and in 1990 was elected mayor of Saint-Léonard, a borough in northeast Montreal. Because of municipal amalgamation in 2001-2002, Zampino joined Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s Union Montréal party. In the years that followed, he was put in charge of the city’s finances and came to be seen as Tremblay’s right-hand man.
In 2008, allegations emerged that Zampino had spent time on Antonio Accurso's luxury yacht in 2007 and 2008. Around that time, Zampino had been in charge of awarding a $355-million municipal water-management contract — Montreal’s largest-ever municipal contract — to GÉNIeau, a consortium that included Simard-Beaudry.
In 2008, Zampino left the mayor’s office and accepted a top executive spot with the engineering-consulting firm Dessau Inc., another company involved in the water-meter deal. Zampino resigned from his Dessau post in 2009, and has insisted that he never intervened in awarding the controversial water-meter contract.
Police also allege that Zampino rigged the bidding process for the Faubourg Contrecoeur housing project in 2007 to favour Construction Frank Catania. Zampino was charged on May 17 with fraud, conspiracy, breach of trust and being a party to an offence.
A longtime fixture in Montreal municipal politics, the 74-year-old Trépanier was until recently the top fundraiser for Union Montréal, the party of Mayor Gérald Tremblay. On May 17, he was charged with fraud, conspiracy, breach of trust, being a party to an offence and fraud against government.
According to Benoît Labonté, a onetime member of Union Montréal, Trépanier earned the nickname "Mr. 3 per cent." In a 2009 interview with Radio-Canada, Labonté claimed there was a long-standing system at Montreal City Hall wherein three per cent of the value of public works contracts was funnelled to political parties, elected officials and city bureaucrats.