Does Ontario need a Charbonneau-style corruption inquiry?

As Quebec's Charbonneau inquiry into construction-industry corruption wrapped up last week, the question arises: Is Ontario’s economy, Canada's biggest, free from that kind of graft? Or should it, too, undergo some form of scrutiny?

Scandals have arisen in province, experts say, but not to the 'crisis' level of Quebec

Judge France Charbonneau presided over hearings that revealed a deep rot in Quebec's construction industry. There are hints of some similar problems in Ontario, but are they profound enough to warrant similar scrutiny? (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"Laws and regulations alone won't defeat collusion and corruption. We all have to put our shoulder to the wheel."

With those words from chief commissioner France Charbonneau, Quebec's momentous 2½-year corruption hearings came to a close. They had exposed a venal rot — embroiling company executives, municipal officials, engineers, political parties, politicians and mobsters — in how public contracts were doled out in the province's construction industry.

As the Quebec inquiry wrapped up last week, the question arises: Is Ontario’s economy, Canada's biggest, totally free from that kind of corruption? Or should it, too, undergo some form of scrutiny — perhaps a Charbonneau-lite?

"All the dynamics are there for this kind of thing to occur, for corruption to occur," political scientist Robert MacDermid, who researches political parties and public administration at York University in Toronto, said of Ontario. "But would a government actually call something without a direct crisis on their hands? I think not. No government would. They tend to only call inquiries when their back is against the wall."

Ontario hasn't been rocked by waves of revelations about corruption like those that hit Quebec in the lead-up to the Charbonneau inquiry. But all is not lily white in the province.

Parallels between provinces

Some of the same names that arose during the Charbonneau commission have long had dealings in Ontario — such as former construction entrepreneur Tony Accurso, who's facing a dozen criminal charges in Quebec ranging from breach of trust to fraud, plus at least 470 tax charges. In the recent past, companies he was president and/or part-owner of built gas pipelines across Ontario and operated in communities from Brampton to Zorra.

Some of the same techniques employed by crooked Quebec construction companies to funnel money have been used in Ontario, too — like issuing cheques to pay fake invoices from shell companies that take a cut and return the rest in untraceable cash. Quebec court records from a criminal case against one such shell company, obtained as part of an ongoing CBC investigation, show a number of Ontario firms took advantage. The cash can then be used for a variety of purposes, such as under-the-table political donations or hiring unauthorized workers.

Ben Soave, once the RCMP's top anti-Mafia officer in Ontario, says any kind of investigation into issues in the province's construction industry should be case-driven and not a 'fishing trip just for the sake of looking.' (CBC)

Testimony at the Charbonneau commission revealed Montreal has a luxury waterfront condo that mobsters have sunk their claws into. But so does Toronto.

And for Toronto journalists with their ear to the ground, in the municipalities that ring the provincial capital, there's a near-constant low-level chatter about elected officials or city staff given to unscrupulous schemes like diverting construction supplies, and the occasional construction worker, from public projects to private homes.

There are also hints organized crime has its tentacles in at least parts of Ontario's construction industry.

Several years ago, Italian investigators revealed the results of a sweeping probe into the global 'Ndrangheta Mafia — the Calabrian mob, said to be even more powerful than the Sicilian Costa Nostra. Court documents from Italy said the investigators believed "a top branch of the organization" was based in Toronto, with a couple of clans in Thunder Bay.

There are indications some of those figures have their fingers in construction. A 2012 Canadian police intelligence report labelled the 'Ndrangheta an "enforcement priority" for Canada, saying it had "many ties to legitimate businesses, from cash houses, restaurants, bars and grocery stores to construction."

As a joint CBC News-Toronto Star investigation reported earlier this year, the biggest construction union in North America — Toronto-based Local 183 of the Labourers International Union — has asked police to investigate a company it has dealings with, prompted by journalists' queries about possible connections to the Calabrian crime network.

'Fishing trip'

But is it all enough to warrant wider public scrutiny, or just par for the course in a world that organized crime will perpetually bedevil?

"There isn't a thing on Earth that is not touched one way or another by organized crime. I think all you have to do is a little bit of research and you'll see it's everywhere and will be around forever," said Ben Soave, a retired RCMP chief superintendent who used to head up the force's anti-Mafia efforts in Ontario.

"I don't think Ontario should venture into a fishing trip just for the sake of looking into that. Eventually, if it's something that's case driven, like in Quebec where you have a scandal and a lot of allegations, then maybe."

Soave said there are procedures in place for governments to try to suss out organized crime in companies that bid on public contracts. "Everybody is so conscious of it that they're trying to put measures in place — checks and balances — to make sure it doesn't happen. Governments have police services at their disposal to conduct all the necessary due diligence."

York University's MacDermid pointed out that one-off inquiries have arisen when specific allegations reached a boiling point. That happened in Toronto in the early 2000s, and in Mississauga in 2009.

The Toronto inquiry found "credible evidence" that a councillor took a $25,000 "payoff" from a computer-leasing company that got an $85-million contract with the city; the inquiry led to the creation of three new city oversight offices.

In the Mississauga case, a judge concluded that Mayor Hazel McCallion had used her influence to further the cause of a company she knew her son had a financial stake in. While this breached common law principles of conflict of interest, the judge wrote, it did not violate the provincial statute.

In both cases, MacDermid said, "that's not the kind of mass rigging of public contracts that the inquiry found in Quebec."

Soave agreed, noting that public inquiries are costly. "I don't see any case that is begging for an inquiry."


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