The head of Quebec's anti-corruption unit has rejected calls for a public inquiry into corruption and collusion in the province's construction industry, shoring up Premier Jean Charest's opposition to such a probe.
Robert Lafrenière said a public inquiry would harm ongoing police work because it could alert potential suspects to the fact that they are being investigated and jeopardize evidence that might be needed for a criminal case.
"People assigned to appear before a commission either to testify publicly or behind closed doors would know that they are being targeted. That would change their behaviour. They would become more suspicious and perhaps even destroy evidence," Mr. Lafrenière said, raising the possibility that subsequent prosecutions could fail to convict the people responsible for bid-rigging, influence peddling and protection rackets.
Mr. Lafrenière predicted that there will soon be arrests and that the long-promised crackdown is forthcoming. He urged the public to be patient as his unit collects evidence.
"Our teams are at work and I am confident that soon I will be in a position to publicly announce new results. We know that is what you want. But keep in mind that in our field of work, time is a factor in achieving concrete and probing results," he said during a news conference in Montreal in which he gave a progress report on the work done by the anti-corruption unit.
At the same time, signs of dissent were appearing in the Liberal ranks on the issue. Mr. Charest's main speech writer, Patrice Servant, resigned on Monday, saying he could no longer defend the government's refusal to hold a public inquiry.
"I am not at ease in relaying the government's position, which is not in the citizens' best interest," Mr. Servant told Radio-Canada.
Mr. Charest created the Permanent Anti-corruption Unit last February in response to demands for a full public inquiry and appointed Mr. Lafrenière, a former director of the Sûreté du Québec, to lead it.
Last week, the director of the Quebec Transport Ministry's anti-collusion unit, Jacques Duchesneau, said there is a lack of political will to curtail the power that a group of engineering firms has over construction projects and the intimidation tactics used in the industry to discourage competition. He called for a full public inquiry, saying that police work was ineffective in impeding the elaborate systems of collusion put in place by sophisticated criminals.
Mr. Duchesneau's unit, created 18 months ago, is now part of the permanent anti-corruption squad.
Mr. Duchesneau said in a media interview that a judge, rather than Mr. Lafrenière, should be at the head of the anti-corruption unit.
Mr. Lafrenière said he could not accept that a fellow police investigator working for his unit would publicly criticize his work. Mr. Duchesneau's future may hinge on the outcome of a meeting with Mr. Lafrenière in the coming days.
Mr. Charest, who is on a 10-day mission to France and Spain, also faces a petition posted on the National Assembly website on Monday sponsored by Quebec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir. The petition, which calls for an inquiry into corruption practices and the funding of political parties, gathered several thousand signatures in only a few hours.