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Charest hints Quebec corruption inquiry could happen after all

Quebec Premier Jean Charest responds to Opposition questions on his refusal to launch a public inquiry on corruption in the construcion industry Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at the legislature in Quebec City. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot)

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After two years of brushing off the idea of an inquiry into corruption in Quebec, Premier Jean Charest hinted Wednesday that there might be one after all.

The premier has repeatedly resisted calls for an inquiry into ties between the Mafia and other crime groups, the construction industry, crooked civil servants, and political parties.

But Mr. Charest informed the legislature Wednesday that he will consider a proposal by the province's anti-collusion watchdog.

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That proposal from Jacques Duchesneau is for a two-phase inquiry: the first part would be held behind closed doors, where witnesses would testify about cases of corruption.

The second step – to be held in public – would hear witnesses propose solutions to the problem.

Mr. Duchesneau says the inquiry should be run by three judges selected by the legislature. He says that approach is based on a common practice in Australia.

He says such an approach offers two benefits.

First, he said witnesses are far more willing to cough up information when they're guaranteed anonymity. Also, he said such discreet testimony would avoid tipping off criminals to the evidence police have against them.

The premier was pressed by the opposition Wednesday – as he has been for two years – on his refusal to hold an inquiry.

Since 2009, Mr. Charest's answer has been the same: that police are well-equipped to handle cases of corruption and that he has instituted enough legislative and investigative measures to deal with the problem.

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This time, the reply was different.

"The government will study the ideas (Duchesneau) put forward," Mr. Charest said, in response to a question from Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois.

Mr. Charest's choice of language appeared intentional. One day earlier, two of his ministers also appeared to leave the door open to a closed-door inquiry.

Mr. Duchesneau laid out his case for an inquiry during a fascinating evening of testimony before a legislative committee late Tuesday.

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