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Quebec corruption probes just starting to heat up

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MONTREAL - In the time it took Quebec's corruption inquiry to complete its fall sitting, three long-standing mayors had resigned, municipal parties were decimated or disbanded, and a shadow of suspicion spread over the political world.

Turn the page to 2013 and the corruption-fighting agenda is set to move beyond municipalities into the provincial arena.

The head of the inquiry and the boss of the province's anti-corruption unit have both signalled that their gaze will soon move beyond the municipal level.

The police unit has arrested dozens of people but it may just be getting warmed up. The unit boss says there are more than 20 ongoing investigations not only into construction but also into hospitals, computer-service contracts and even Quebec's highly touted northern development plan.

As for the Charbonneau commission, it began sitting in 2012 and quickly shocked Quebecers with tales of pervasive corruption in the province's construction industry. It heard about a conspiracy to drive up the cost of public projects, with the illicit profit going to the Mafia, political parties, companies and crooked bureaucrats.

How wild was this fall? As the session began, an inquiry lawyer hinted that some "juicy" revelations were coming. Within weeks that same lawyer, Sylvain Lussier, was himself forced to resign because of the appearance of a conflict of interest. He had represented a company named at the probe.

The departure of Lussier and his deputy forced an unscheduled seven-week break after the inquiry heard just 30 of the roughly 50 witnesses who were expected to testify in the fall.

Some wonder if the inquiry has missed its mark.

A political science professor who served as an adviser to the federal Gomery Commission says France Charbonneau hasn't come close to covering her intended ground.

For all the bombshell-laden testimony that led, within one week, to the departure of two of the province's longest-serving mayors, in Montreal and Laval, she said the focus has been limited mostly to Montreal and a few nearby towns.

Carolle Simard said the probe has fallen short in other places like the infiltration of organized crime, allegations of corruption within trade unions, and provincial politics and party financing.

"I think we've heard from the little fish, but the big fish are still unknown to us," said Simard, a professor at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.

"We've heard plenty of rumours about them but we don't know who they are and we haven't seen them on television."

Simard admits she's generally critical of public inquiries and says she prefers police investigations. She says she wasn't enthralled by the end of the fall session, finding the investigation "redundant and repetitive."

"I don't think they are necessarily the answer to all our problems and I believe more in police investigations where people are arrested and tried," Simard said.

She also questioned the motives of some witnesses at the inquiry. She suggested they might be testifying not because they want to share the truth — but because they believe it might help them avoid criminal charges.

However, the province's anti-corruption police unit, known as UPAC, says the ongoing inquiry hasn't really hampered its work.

Robert Lafreniere, who heads the unit, had originally been critical of a public inquiry when it was first announced. He said during a year-end news conference his concerns were unfounded.

"I was worried that it could harm our police investigations," Lafreniere said. "But we find that Charbonneau has masterfully assured that our investigations are unaffected."

The inquiry has also been criticized for allowing the names of certain people to be mentioned during the live hearings without giving them a chance to immediately respond.

As names and allegations were lobbed like live grenades for several weeks, reputations were hit. Most people said they were keen to respond on the witness stand.

Among them was former Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay, who resigned under heavy pressure. While quitting, he said he had been eager to testify about allegations he'd turned a blind eye to illegal party financing and he expressed frustration at being forced to wait.

That's par for the course for a commission of inquiry, which can tarnish reputations, says a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has followed the hearings.

Charles-Maxime Panaccio says the names were not mentioned arbitrarily. He says not allowing people to testify right away could be an inquiry tactic to encourage others to come forward.

"A commission of inquiry can have some unfortunate consequences for certain people and can, for a time, have an effect on some people's reputation," Panaccio said.

In one example, inquiry officials published a list of people who had supposedly met at an exclusive Montreal club.

After sparking an instant furor, the inquiry officials later noted that they were actually unsure of what people discussed at those meetings and even whether the people listed on the club logs had really sat down together.

Justice Charbonneau has promised that everyone who wants to be heard will be questioned by inquiry officials, and she said those with relevant information will be invited to testify on the stand.

The next wave of testimony could potentially include longtime Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto, who is rumoured to have been subpoenaed. Police confirm they have met with the famous Mafioso but will not confirm the subpoena.

A onetime Rizzuto associate, Raynald Desjardins, is now battling to avoid the witness stand. Currently awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges in the killing of a former Bonanno crime family boss, Desjardins' name has come up in a number of construction-related investigations by provincial police.

The prospect of suspected mobsters testifying on live TV would be a generational throwback in Quebec.

The Commission d'enquete sur le crime organise, known best by the acronym CECO, was a public inquiry into organized crime's infiltration of legitimate business. The commission began in 1972 and featured mobsters and their victims testifying under the glare of camera lights.

Pierre de Champlain, a Mafia expert and retired RCMP analyst, said most of the Mob bosses didn't end up offering much in the way of substance back then.

Many were sent to jail for contempt of court. Among them was Paolo Violi, whose criminal empire began crumbling after his arrest.

Violi was eventually murdered, and his family was supplanted by the Rizzutos.

"The (1970s inquiry was) followed religiously — like television episodes or a soap opera,'' de Champlain said. ''People were glued to it."

The Charbonneau inquiry picks up again on Jan. 21.

Time is short. Commissioners must table a final report by Oct. 19, 2013, but Panaccio said he thinks the mandate will be extended.

"I think they've just started to uncover things and it's looking at very serious stuff that is relevant to the public's confidence in institutions," Panaccio said.

"In my opinion it should get as much time as it needs to get to the bottom of the issues."

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