The man who sparked Quebec's corruption inquiry

Former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau will be the star witness Wednesday when the Quebec inquiry into corruption in the construction industry begins formal hearings. He tells the CBC's Terence McKenna that Canadians are naive to believe organized crime isn't involved in these businesses.

Straight arrow Jacques Duchesneau, Montreal's former police chief, is to be the star witness when the inquiry into construction industry begins formal hearings on Wednesday

Former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau recalls his own first brush with corruption.  

He was young police officer participating in a raid on a drug dealer. Afterwards, back in the squad car, Duchesneau's partner explained that, during the search, he took $50 in cash found in a drawer. "He said 'Twenty-five for me and $25 for you'…and I said no."  

In the years that followed, Duchesneau developed a reputation as Mr. Clean in the Montreal police, something that did not always endear him to colleagues.

But that reputation not only served him well career-wise, it looks now like it might even transform Quebec's entire political culture and its way of doing business.

When Duchesneau takes the stand Wednesday at Quebec's long-awaited public inquiry into corruption in the construction industry, he will be the star witness at an inquiry that probably wouldn't have come about without his handiwork.

Having served four years as Montreal's chief of police and president of the Quebec Association of Police Directors, he was the natural choice when Premier Jean Charest went looking two years ago for a candidate to lead a special police unit into allegations of widespread collusion and corruption in the construction industry.

The leak of his secret report last September, and Duchesneau's subsequent testimony before a committee of the Quebec National Assembly, effectively forced Charest to call the public inquiry into corruption, something the premier had long resisted.

Enter the Mafia  

In his report, Duchesneau catalogued how Montreal organized crime moved into the construction industry.

Former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau, takes the stand Wednesday at the Quebec inquiry into corruption in the construction industry. (Mathieu Belanger / Reuters)

"You need to look at the way the Mafia operates," he told me recently. "First they do petty crimes and they make money out of it. Then they need to do something with the money and they need to bring that money back into the system.

"That's why we saw over the years, Hells Angels or other Mafia-type organizations bought enterprises that are directly involved in construction.

"For them it's a way of laundering their money. You can make much more money doing one kilometre of highway than selling a container of cocaine … and it's less trouble with the law."  

Duchesneau is preoccupied with the involvement of organized crime in this corruption scandal because of the time he spent studying Japan's version of the Mafia, called Yakuza, which has become an ingrained part of Japanese society.

"Sixty per cent of their income comes from legitimate business," he says of the Yakuza.

"Take the revenues of Sony and the revenues of Toyota, put them together and multiple them by four and that would be their yearly income. Is that the type of country we want to live in?"

'The Touch'

As Duchesneau sees it, Quebec, and perhaps other Canadian jurisdictions, are letting these "clandestine empires" be built and the real problem, he says, will be in 10 or 20 years when organized crime will be controlling much of the country through their legitimate businesses.

Still, the amounts of money involved in the current corruption scandal are impressive on their own.

Quebec spends around $8 billion a year on public construction projects, including roads, overpasses, hospitals and other public buildings and Tony Accurso, the biggest contractor facing corruption charges, received close to $1 billion in government contracts.

Accurso owns the infamous yacht in Florida called The Touch, which he used to entertain union leaders and politicians.

Two of those politicians, Mascouche Mayor Richard Marcotte and former Montreal executive committee chairman Frank Zampino have been charged, along with Accurso, with fraud and breach of trust.

Zampino twice vacationed on the yacht while the city of Montreal was negotiating a $400-million contract for water meters with Accurso, a contract that was eventually cancelled.   

Political fundraising

Duchesneau says the system of public contracting in Quebec is rife with conflicts of interest.

"What we need to do is take a deep breath and look at the way we do business and maybe change the way we do business. We need to be much more severe with people who go beyond the limits."  

The scandal has already touched Premier Charest's cabinet. His former deputy premier, Nathalie Normandeau, overruled her departmental officials to authorize money to build a water filtration plant in the town of Boisbriand.

Later it was discovered that the main contractor, Lino Zambito, participated in numerous fund-raising events for Normandeau and gave her gifts of expensive concert tickets for her entire entourage.

Zambito and the former mayor of Boisbriand have since been charged with fraud and breach of trust.

After Normandeau resigned, her successor as deputy premier, Line Beauchamp, was also embarrassed by the news that one of her exclusive fund-raising events was attended by a known member of the Montreal Mafia involved in the construction industry. (She too has now resigned, though it was over her failure to resolve the tuition strike by Quebec students.)  

Duchesneau sees the connection between political fundraising and construction contracts as a key part of the problem.

"You know once you win an election, you come to power and you ask your ministers to collect $100,000 a year on a regular basis.

"You are just opening the door for people to meet with people they shouldn't be meeting. I mean that is the way that organized crime works."  

Duchesneau is aware that many in the rest of Canada dismiss this sort of corruption as a Quebec problem. He thinks they are being naïve.

"Is there organized crime in your neighborhood? If there is then there probably is a connection with politicians. That's the way it works. You can turn a blind eye on it. We're not. We are just saying enough is enough."