Analysis

Sure the UPAC scandal is labyrinthine, but here's why we should care

There isn't a flow chart in the world that could help make decipherable the recent controversies surrounding Quebec's anti-corruption unit, UPAC. But there are good reasons to be concerned about its floundering reputation.

The crisis of confidence surrounding Quebec's anti-corruption unit is bad news for democracy

UPAC Commissioner Robert Lafrenière leaves the podium after speaking to the media in Montreal on Oct. 31, 2017. MNA Guy Ouellette was linked to a UPAC probe called Machurer, which looked into suspected illegal financing within the Liberal party under former leader Jean Charest. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

There isn't a flow chart in the world that could help make decipherable the recent controversies surrounding Quebec's anti-corruption unit, UPAC.

The water-cooler version runs something like this:

The guy they think leaked that really important thing has a wife who works across the hall from a guy who's friends with the other guy they think leaked a thing, and their wives are friends, and they, like, talk all the time, but that guy doesn't like the guy whose stuff was being leaked. 

If the mandarins in Quebec City are titillated by the UPAC drama, few in the rest of the province have felt compelled to follow along. 

But if we put the incremental details aside for a moment, there are good reasons to care that the anti-corruption unit's reputation is in free fall amid poisonous infighting. 

UPAC is not just another branch of the Quebec government; it's not just another law enforcement operation. It is focused on a particular kind of corruption — corruption of the democratic system.

Former construction boss-turned-whistleblower Lino Zambito has cut ties with UPAC, saying he will no longer co-operate in investigations until it gets its affairs in order. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

The unit was created in 2011 as collusion scandals rocking the province's construction industry began to spill over into the political world.

Lucrative public contracts — meant to go to the lowest bidder — were being rigged through payoffs to political parties and politicians. 

As it turned out, this wasn't just a Montreal problem or a Laval problem. It encompassed dozens of municipalities, allegedly some school boards and, of course, the provincial government itself.

The damage from political corruption is two-fold. There is the financial cost to taxpayers, obviously. Arguably more pernicious is the cost to public trust in democratic institutions.

The dangers of declining trust

According to data from Statistics Canada's 2013 General Social Survey on Social Identity, Quebecers had at that time among the lowest levels of confidence in their police forces, courts and school systems in Canada.

And Montreal was the Canadian city that registered the lowest levels of confidence in major institutions. 

Statistics Canada data from 2013 showed that Quebecers had the lowest levels of confidence in police, courts and other government institutions in Canada. (Statistics Canada)

So UPAC's mission, in a sense, is not just about holding white-collar criminals to account. It is about restoring our ability to believe the people we voted for are working for us.

When we don't — when distrust in government rises — the door opens to populist backlash.

Therein lies the danger of the recent controversies.

The abridged version is that a growing number of people are concerned about the slow pace of UPAC's investigations.

Critics worry that its ability to conduct investigations is being compromised by a toxic work environment under commissioner Robert Lafrenière.
Public security Minister Martin Coiteux is trying to push through a bill to expand UPAC's powers and make it an autonomous police force, but so far he doesn't have the support of opposition parties. (CBC News)

Several of the Sûreté du Québec officers who work for the unit have complained about poorly defined roles, little planning, favouritism and a climate of anxiety.

Moreover, a UPAC investigation into a damaging series of leaks fingered two employees unhappy with their bosses. (They have not been charged.)

Another person named in that investigation, former construction boss-turned-whistleblower Lino Zambito, announced Sunday he was suspending his co-operation with the unit until it can get its affairs in order.

He denied being involved in the leaks and resented being named as a suspect. 

"I can't believe UPAC is attacking my credibility," he said at a news conference in Montreal.

Time for a show of love? 

Zambito is something of a corruption expert. After pleading guilty to fraud and corruption charges in 2015, he turned on his cronies after his arrest and has been providing damning testimony ever since.

Losing his co-operation could compromise ongoing UPAC investigations. 

This mess has given pause to opposition parties thinking about backing a government bill that would expand UPAC's powers and make it an autonomous police force. UPAC currently relies on co-operation from the SQ and the Montreal police service, the SPVM. 

Both the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec want Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux to shelve his bill until UPAC undertakes a series of internal reforms.    

Coiteux's office refused to comment Monday about the troubles at the anti-corruption unit. But to plow ahead with the bill, despite opposition concerns, would jeopardize its chances of securing cross-party support.

The Liberals, of course, don't need the votes. But UPAC's reputation sure could use the endorsement.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit

Journalist

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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