Charbonneau says commission work won't stop over break

The head of Quebec's corruption inquiry is calling for a go-slow approach in the examination of allegations of wrongdoing in the awarding of public contracts.

Public commission hearings adjourned until Jan. 21

France Charbonneau says work will continue during the break 2:37

Quebec's corruption inquiry has wrapped up its public hearings for the year after weeks of bombshell-laden testimony that blew up two mayors' careers and managed to rattle the realm of politics, business and organized crime.

The Charbonneau Commission is pausing its hearings until Jan. 21, after having toppled the longstanding mayors of Montreal and Laval during its fall session.

The probe has heard about pervasive corruption in Quebec's construction industry where the price of public projects was inflated and the proceeds were split among companies, the Mafia, political parties and crooked bureaucrats.

Justice France Charbonneau says now is the perfect time to take a breather and regroup.

As the inquiry begins a longer-than-expected hiatus, Charbonneau is appealing for patience.

"All the pieces of the puzzle can't be put together at the same time," she said in a brief statement. "Improvisation is not a measure of success."

The inquiry has heard from numerous witnesses since September: construction bosses who described a cartel-like structure and the threats against those who defied it; crooked City of Montreal employees; and a former political staffer whose testimony ended the Montreal mayor's career.

The witness who got things going was Lino Zambito, an ex-construction boss facing corruption-related charges who testified for days about his personal involvement with a bid-rigging cartel.

The commission also heard from Gilles Surprenant and Luc Leclerc, City of Montreal engineers who famously went on golfing holidays in the south with Vito Rizzuto, the reputed head of Montreal's Mafia.

They told the commission they helped raise the price of contracts by ensuring that fictitious extra costs were approved without question. In return, they pocketed more than $1 million in cash between them, some of which was returned to the commission.

The inquiry also heard from a criminologist, a handful of police officers with a background in the Mafia, and Joseph Pistone, the FBI agent who famously infiltrated the New York Mafia under the name "Donnie Brasco."

In the wake of testimony, two longtime local politicians called it quits within five days of each other: Gerald Tremblay in Montreal and Gilles Vaillancourt in Laval.

In addition, others have taken leaves of absence or resigned from posts after being mentioned at the inquiry.

The testimony has also raised the names of powerful Quebec construction bosses, a former Quebec Liberal organizer and loto-corporation executive, and a federal senator.

The inquiry has been criticized for naming people without giving them a chance to defend their reputation.

In the latest example, inquiry officials published a list of people who met at an exclusive Montreal club — but they later added that they were unsure of what people discussed at those meetings and even whether the people listed on the club logs have actually sat down together.

That prompted a vigorous pushback from some club guests, including ex-deputy premier Line Beauchamp and Tory Sen. Leo Housakos, who conducted a round of media interviews. Other people have defended themselves through written statements or through their lawyers.

Charbonneau promised that everyone who wants to be heard will be questioned by inquiry officials, and she said those with relevant information will be invited to testify on the stand.

But she said the commission can't meet with everyone at once.

"Each day we get new information that is extremely pertinent to our mandate that obliges us to change the order in which witnesses and evidence is heard," she said.

"We have the important obligation to protect police investigations already underway."

The commission had been scheduled to keep hearing witnesses right up until Dec. 20. Instead, a decision was taken to suspend the public portion of the inquiry this week.

Investigators will continue to do their work, gathering evidence and meeting with prospective witnesses, Charbonneau assured.

She insisted the information being discussed at the inquiry — as well as the identity of the people being named — will be relevant in the end.

"The investigation is evolving daily and constantly," she said. "We can't do everything at once."

The inquiry was also hampered by personnel changes.

On Monday, the new lead counsel told reporters that a seven-week break was necessary. Sonia LeBel said the departure of two lawyers who'd led the commission earlier in the fall made the early hiatus necessary.

The inquiry's chief counsel, Sylvain Lussier, announced he had to quit because of the potential appearance of a conflict of interest. He had represented a company named at the inquiry.

Later, Claude Chartrand, the assistant chief counsel, left after being passed up for the main job. He said he didn't feel his talents were being used properly.

Charbonneau said new lawyers will be added to the mix to replace the two veterans, with care being taken to ensure no conflict-of-interest issues arise.

She also thanked commission staff for their "admirable work," as well as the media and the lawyers for the various parties.

The inquiry lawyers, who have for the most part not spoken to reporters, left Thursday simply wishing journalists happy holidays but providing little hint of what they expect in January.

Barring a change in schedule, the Charbonneau commission must table its final report by Oct. 19, 2013.