Quebec moving ahead with new watchdog for public works contracts

The Quebec government is moving ahead with plans to create a new provincial watchdog for public contracts, one of the key recommendations of the Charbonneau commission into corruption.

Government also asks auditor general to investigate practices at Transport Ministry

Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao (middle) announced the new measures to counter allegations of intimidation and corruption at Transports Québec accompanied by Liberal MNA Robert Poeti (left) and transport minister, Jacques Daoust (right). (CBC)

The Quebec government is moving ahead with plans to create a new provincial watchdog for public contracts, one of the key recommendations of the Charbonneau commission into corruption .

Carlos Leitao, Quebec's minister of finance and government administration, says a new bill will be presented to the National Assembly before the end of the session."This organization will be the province's watchdog for public contracts," Leitao said.

"It will allow for permanent surveillance of how contracts are managed, at Transports Québec and across the government." 

The authority would have the power to investigate complaints in the awarding of contracts and intervene when necessary, Leitao said.

"Our goal for creating this authority is assure that calls for tender do not restrain competition and that contracts are granted in a way that's fair and transparent," he said. 

Auditor general to look into Transport Ministry contacts

The government also announced Tuesday that the province's Auditor General Gylaine Leclerc will investigate the management of public contracts awarded by Transports Québec.

The move comes in the wake of allegations of intimidation and corruption in the awarding of contracts at the ministry, which resulted in the firings last week of deputy transport minister, Dominique Savoie, and the transport minister's chief of staff, Pierre Ouellet.

The former Quebec deputy transport minister, Dominique Savoie, testifies at a legislature committee on transport, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Leitao said the auditor general's investigation will look into the findings of Annie Trudel, a former investigator with the provincial anti-corruption unit hired by Robert Poeti during his tenure as transport minister to investigate the department.

Trudel outlined her findings in a letter sent to Ouellet in April announcing her resignation.

She attributed her departure to frustrations with her investigation getting nowhere due to roadblocks and difficulties obtaining information from the ministry.

Noting that Transports Québec awards a significant portion of the province's $20 billion in public contracts, Leitao said it's "only normal" that the auditor general should ensure the awarding of those contracts conform with government regulations.

Poeti's removal as transport minister raised questions

Concerns about shady dealings at Transports Québec surfaced publicly in a recent interview that Poeti, who was replaced by Daoust as transport minister in January, gave to the French-language magazine L'actualité.

The story detailed Poeti's claims that Transports Québec employees were being intimidated into awarding contracts to certain people and that cost overruns on public projects were being hidden.

Poeti told the magazine he asked Savoie to intervene in some situations and change certain practices, but he was shuffled out of cabinet in January.

Robert Poeti was replaced by Jacques Daoust as transport minister in January 2016. (CBC)

Savoie said last week that she's done nothing wrong.

The situation led to accusations from opposition party MNAs that Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard replaced Poeti to stifle his work in uncovering and fixing the irregularities within the ministry.

Couillard said he only learned of Poeti's concerns in April through a letter Poeti wrote to Daoust outlining his concerns.

Among the things that Poeti points out is that ex-employees of the ministry had been awarded contracts without tender.

Poeti satisifed with new measures

Poeti said Tuesday that he's satisfied with the new measures announced on Tuesday.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe this was a positive step in the right direction for the people of Quebec," he said.

No time frame was given for the auditor general's investigation, but Daoust said his ministry would not wait for the auditor general's final report to take action. 

"If she comes to us [during her investigation] and says this has to change, we'll make the changes immediately," he said.

with files from Ryan Hicks, Kamila Hinkson