The making of an informed people

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They don’t have the power to put criminals behind bars. They don’t have the power to take people to court. They certainly don’t have the power to accuse witnesses of wrongdoing. However the Charbonneau Commission has the ability to inform the people and in a society like ours, an informed people is the greatest power of all.

“The commission’s investigations are going well, in terms of one of the purposes of the commission, which was to make public the corruption in Montreal,” said Marcel Danis, Concordia University professor, lawyer, and former politician, in an interview with The Concordian.

The Charbonneau Commission was created by Jean Charest’s Liberal party on Oct. 19, 2011. As I look at the past year, I must say, I’m fairly impressed with the work this commission has done. As a result of the testimonies made by witnesses on the stand at the commission, two major Quebec politicians, Gerald Tremblay, now ex-Montreal mayor, and Gilles Vaillancourt, ex-Laval mayor, have resigned amid corruption allegations.

This is what Montreal’s corrupt construction industry, and the system as a whole, needs; a fresh start. The Charbonneau Commission, chaired by Justice France Charbonneau is doing just that. Although they don’t have the power, like I said, to accuse people in court, they have shed substantial light on the process in which public contracts are given out, and many politicians, Vaillancourt and Tremblay among them, were ratted out in the process.

The commission, however, does have certain drawbacks. Not only can they not make arrests, but witnesses who testify are completely protected. This, according to Danis, has pushed many people to come and testify.

“One of the bad things about the commission is that when someone goes to testify at the commission, what they say cannot be used against them,” said Danis. “That’s why some police officers were against the fact of creating the commission in the first place.”

However, one must not focus on that aspect of the commission, because it seriously undermines what the commission is actually doing, which is more valuable; scaring corruption out of the industry.

Lino Zambito, ex-construction boss and one of the more popular witnesses at the Charbonneau Commission, said it himself that the “process really hasn’t been the same lately.” People are finally aware of how corrupt the process was, and measures are being put in place to try and fix the system. This, all thanks to the commission.

“There’s no doubt that one of the good things of the commission is that it will scare people who are civil servants to work in the city of Montreal,” said Danis. “They’re more likely to be very careful at least for a number of years.”

According to Danis, prices for public contracts have dropped substantially since 2009, having “gone down between 25 and 30 per cent for sewer work and sidewalk work.”

More importantly, the commission is enlightening the people. Montreal is littered with corrupt politicians and a large mafia. Joe Pistone, also known as Donnie Brasco, infiltrated the New York mafia in the 1970s and ‘80s, and was invited to testify at the Charbonneau Commission. His experience has taught him a lot about the inner workings of the mafia, and he put it simply enough.

“Without that corruption, they really can’t operate,” said Pistone. “And as soon as the public realizes that, it lessens the impact that the mafia can have on us.”

Montreal needs to get back on track as one of the best cities in North America. The first step is by cleaning up our streets, and we have the Charbonneau Commission to thank for the progress we’ve made this year.


Corruption by the numbers

Photo by Madelayne Hajek

24-25 – The number, in billions, awarded in public contracts every year by the provincial government.

1 – The anti-corruption bill tabled by the Parti Québécois in an effort to eliminate collusion in the public sector and clean up municipal offices. To ensure that the public tendering of contracts is fair, the provincial government’s legislation aims to subject companies to a screening process to prove they are honest and free of corruption.

2 – The number of mayors who resigned as a result of the testimonies implicating them in the Charbonneau Commission. Following allegations of corruption within the Union Montreal, Gérald Tremblay stepped down from his position of the mayor of Montreal Nov. 5 following an extended vacation. Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt ended a 23-year career when he stepped down Friday, Nov. 9.

2.5 – Construction boss Lino Zambito accused Vaillancourt of taking 2.5 per cent of every public contract for his own gain. According to Zambito’s testimony, Vaillancourt pocketed the money as kickbacks.

76, 83, 45 – In a Léger Marketing poll for the Journal de Montréal Oct. 31, with a total number of 629 participants, 76 per cent felt it was necessary for Tremblay to resign. Additionally, 83 per cent felt Tremblay’s budget proposal for 2013 including an increase in municipal taxes by 3.3 per cent was unacceptable and 45 per cent of participants felt it was impossible to eliminate the Mafia’s presence in the construction industry in Quebec.

99 – The difference of votes that saw Vision Montréal’s Cindy Leclerc win a byelection in Rivière-des-Prairies Nov. 11 over Union Montréal’s Nino Colavecchio. The results mean that Union Montréal will have less power in City Hall after its opposition campaigned heavily on integrity. Approximately 21 per cent of the borough’s population voted in the byelection.

$700,000 – The approximate total in thousands of dollars that retired city engineer, Gilles Surprenant, received in bribes. Initially, Surprenant testified to taking $600,000 in kickbacks and blowing a portion of it gambling but the actual number was closer to $700,000.

91 – The number of contracts that Surprenant worked on during his career as a city engineer. Throughout a nine-year period spanning from 2000 to 2009, Surprenant fixed a total of 91 contracts and the cost of public works initiatives and projects rose by as much as 35 per cent.


Gérald Tremblay steps down

Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay announced his resignation from office due to ongoing allegations of corruption on Monday evening.

Tremblay held the press conference at 7 p.m. but met with councillors from his party at city hall hours before he officially stepped down.

Tremblay said he dedicated himself to the success of Montreal and he denied allegations of misconduct, specifically those made recently at the Charbonneau Commission relating to his own party.

“Under these circumstances, I cannot help anymore,” said Tremblay. “The success of the city is much more important than my personal interests.”

Several executives of Union Montreal, the mayor’s party, have been accused of taking kickbacks in exchange for awarding municipal contracts, during testimonies at the Charbonneau Commission. Tremblay went onto say that he remained skeptical and asked questions over the years but was only ever given documents and memos after the fact.

He accepted full responsibility for what happened but claimed that every time he was informed of corruption or collusion he gave the information to the proper authorities. Tremblay insisted he was unaware of the dishonesty that is currently rocking Quebec politics.

“In politics, perception matters more than the truth. Especially when it is manipulated by multiple factors and agendas, and when the chance to tell the truth is not stated or believed,” he said. “One day, justice will prevail.”

Tremblay took an extended weekend following a testimony from Martin Dumont, former organizer of the Union Montreal, that alleged Tremblay was aware of the scandals going within his office and ignored it. Residents and opposition were quick to criticize a budget tabled by council that aimed to raise taxes by three per cent last week before council reconsidered.

There will not be a municipal election since Tremblay resigned after Nov. 3 and instead city council will appoint a temporary mayor.

With files from Kalina Laframboise

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