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Critics decry Charest's corruption inquiry as toothless and 'emasculated'

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois questions the Premier Jean Charest's government in the National Assembly on Oct. 20, 2011.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

If Jean Charest's public inquiry into construction corruption were a play, it would be getting booed all over Broadway.

The early reviews are scathing, one day after the Premier announced plans for a probe into allegations of widespread criminality stemming from Quebec's multibillion-dollar construction industry.

Montreal's newspapers carried unflattering front-page headlines Thursday like, "A made-to-measure commission;" "An inquiry without teeth;" "An emasculated commission;" and "A first step."

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Some people are even refusing to call it an inquiry – and instead have come up with a variety of amusing and difficult-to-translate French-language nicknames for it.

Mr. Charest created the probe outside the guidelines set by the province's law on public inquiries.

The commission, headed by Madam Justice France Charbonneau of Quebec Superior Court, has no power to offer potential witnesses legal immunity for their testimony. It cannot force people to testify. And it will be held largely behind closed doors.

Mr. Charest says he's gone that route in order to protect the integrity of police investigations.

But legal experts aren't necessarily swayed by the Premier's argument. Some are scratching their heads, wondering why a proper public inquiry can't operate in tandem with police investigations.

One of the Mr. Charest's opponents says that, after two years of resisting calls for an inquiry, he had a chance this week to finally do the right thing.

"The Premier had a rendezvous with history yesterday," Action democratique du Quebec Leader Gerard Deltell told the National Assembly on Thursday. "Sadly, the Premier missed the rendezvous."

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Mr. Charest defended his course of action, saying it was chosen after consulting with law enforcement.

"When you speak to people on the ground, who conduct the investigations, who face these situations every day and who must uncover proof ... they give us advice along the lines of our decision," the Premier replied. "That's what this is all about."

But the opposition says few Quebeckers are celebrating.

"This morning there are people breathing a big sigh of relief," Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois said. "But it isn't the people of Quebec, who are demanding a public inquiry. The people celebrating are those who opposed one – those who had something to hide and might have been compelled to testify.

"They don't even need to destroy the evidence now. Justice Charbonneau can't even ask for it. They're dying of laughter. But Quebeckers aren't fooled."

Judge Charbonneau was the prosecutor who obtained a murder conviction against Hells Angels boss Maurice (Mom) Boucher in 2002.

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She has two years to produce a report on allegations of illicit ties between corrupt construction executives, crime groups like the Mafia, and political party fundraisers.

Mr. Charest has also pointed to more than a dozen policy changes he's instituted over the last two years. They span from new rules on public contracting to political-financing reforms and the creation of new investigation units.

Several people have already been charged in connection with the ongoing investigations.

One of the new units has also looked into former Charest cabinet minister Tony Tomassi, who now faces charges in connection with the use of a personal credit card supplied by a private company.

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