June 25, 2012
Witness provides names at Quebec corruption inquiry
A star witness at Quebec's corruption inquiry delivered a long-awaited torrent of names as he testified recently about a construction industry rife with wrongdoing.
Jacques Duchesneau described an industry that operated like a cartel when it came to public works - fixing prices, driving up costs and squeezing out honest competitors. Such collusion was made easier, he said, by the reality of an overworked, underqualified civil service that failed to scrutinize the industry.
The main themes of Monday’s testimony had already been laid out in the incendiary report that Duchesneau wrote last year, then leaked to the media, which was the final straw that forced the Charest government to call an inquiry.
What that report did not contain was company names. Duchesneau started revealing a number of them on June 18, during his third day on the inquiry witness stand.
Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief who worked for the provincial anti-collusion squad, said his investigating team opened 138 files and sent police 17 that it thought might warrant criminal investigations.
He described two companies that he said controlled the asphalt market in parts of Quebec.
Other firms that wanted to bid on asphalt contracts couldn’t even get a price quote for raw materials, he said, because the companies that controlled access to the materials were also bidding on contracts.
Duchesneau described another pattern that kept emerging: companies would win construction contracts with impossibly low bids then, over time, would drive up the final price tag through all sorts of contract clauses.
In one such account, he described how the engineering firm Dessau was supposed to monitor the work done by Simard-Beaudry Construction Inc.
But the inspector was never hired, he said.
That caused delays for Simard-Beaudry, which managed to claim $1.1 million in penalties from the provincial government.
Simard-Beaudry has temporarily lost its ability to perform construction work in the province after pleading guilty to tax evasion in 2010.
Its owner, Tony Accurso, faces a variety of criminal charges over alleged collusion in another project.
In the world of Quebec public-works contracts, Duchesneau explained, such costly errors long went unpunished. A severe shortage of competent engineers at Quebec’s Transport Department have left it ill-equipped to detect and prevent corruption, he said.
Duchesneau said engineers who work for the province are often young, inexperienced and lack the proper educational background.
To make matters worse, he said, they often find themselves dealing with former superiors who’ve jumped to the private sector. Senior employees would jump straight to higher-paying jobs at firms that were bidding on government contracts, he said.
“People left the department and, the next week, they were already with private firms. This caused a problem on the ethical front, at the very least, and reduced expertise,” said Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief and federal transportation-safety official.
Duchesneau said there was so much paperwork to do, engineers didn’t have time to go to actual sites as often as they’d like.
He said the shortage of government expertise has also forced municipalities to use private engineering firms, which often suggest work that isn’t necessary.
As for the background of employees hired by the Transport Department, it sometimes left a little to be desired.
Instead of civil engineers, he said, the government was hiring the wrong types of experts.
“They went to get engineers with different specialties not necessarily linked to infrastructure. Whether it’s electrical engineering, computer engineering,” said Duchesneau, who authored an anti-corruption report for the province.
“There was even a case of one nuclear engineer.”
Duchesneau was testifying for a third day about cases of collusion between entrepreneurs or a lack of competition in bidding.
News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2012
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