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Corruption in Quebec widespread, watchdog says as probe expands

Antonio Accurso leaves the SQ headquarters in Montreal, Tuesday, April 17, 2012, after being arrested on charges relating to corruption.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Quebec's anti-corruption squad has no fewer than 16 investigations under way, in addition to the one that made headlines this week with the arrest of 15 people, including construction magnate Antonio Accurso, charged with corruption, fraud, conspiracy and bribery.

Allegations of corruption in major construction projects have tainted all levels of government from smaller municipalities to bigger cities, spreading to the Quebec government and federal officials. But statements on Thursday from the head of the province's anti-corruption unit indicate suspicions of wrongdoing in Quebec's biggest resource program, major energy projects and even social programs.

Police say investigations include major construction projects awarded by Hydro Quebec and infrastructure projects for the development of mines under the government's Plan Nord, a 25-year project to develop resources in the province's north.

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"We are examining how the contracts were awarded to see whether they are vulnerable. There are those involving major work projects such as suppliers of Hydro Quebec, the Quebec Ministry of Transportation, computer systems and the Plan Nord," Robert Lafrenière, the head of the anti-corruption unit, said ay National Assembly hearings on the public security ministry on Thursday.

Mr. Lafrenière refused to give details of on-going investigations or describe any of the alleged corrupt practices and whether they have include provincial officials.

This week, Mascouche mayor Richard Marcotte, public officials, a lawyer and construction entrepreneurs were arrested after an 18-month investigation.

Mr. Lafrenière said police have completed four other investigations, which have been handed over to the director of criminal and penal prosecutions, meaning arrests could come soon.

The anti-corruption unit is sharing its information with a commission of inquiry into corruption and collusion in the construction industry that begin next month.

The investigation into major work projects is being conducted in part by the anti-collusion squad, one of several police teams that make-up the anti-corruption unit. The squad's former director, Jacques Duchesneau, made troubling revelations in a report last year of fraudulent practices in the construction industry. He said intimidation, violence, money laundering and protection rackets were an integral part of the industry, and people feared for their lives if they spoke out.

A positive effect of this week's high-profile arrests is that many people were now coming forward with vital information that may help crack several cases, Mr. Lafrenière said.

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"People are talking and we really need the information they have to offer. ... It is having a major impact for us," Mr. Lafrenière said. "A lot more people have called since the arrests this week."

The anti-corruption squad, which includes several other police investigation teams including the Sûreté du Québec's Operation Hammer, had been criticized for failing to show concrete results.

The opposition parties alleged that the unit was being hampered by political interference. The Parti Québécois this week revealed in the National Assembly that the government had failed to cooperate with the anti-corruption unit in an investigation involving the awarding of daycare spaces to individuals who were alleged to have close ties with the Quebec Liberal Party.

But Mr. Lafrenière confirmed that the government handed over all the information needed to complete the investigation.

"We now have in hand all the documents we needed. We already had quite a few, but we received the last documents we needed [on Wednesday]" he said. "In the end, we didn't need use the Access to Information law to get them."

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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