Last week someone at Quebec’s anti-corruption squad got a tip that a civil servant had just received an envelope stuffed with cash and a building permit application.
The inference, according to UPAC commissioner Robert Lafrenière, was that the builder would pay the civil servant in hopes of moving his project along faster. It was a bribe but one that was immediately reported.
Even after working cases for five years and executing some 340 search warrants, Quebec’s UPAC still has its work cut out for it.
“(Last week’s tip), it wasn’t millions of dollars but it was cash in an envelope,” said Lafrenière, former chief of investigations at the Sûreté du Québec. “You think, ‘Wow, people are still doing this.’ And I tell myself, ‘There might be places where this is still how it works. We just haven’t had any whistleblowers yet.’ So yeah, in 2016, we have to keep letting people know that we need them to report wrongdoing. They’re our eyes and ears … There are still reprehensible acts happening.”
Since its inception in 2011 — as reports over rampant corruption in the awarding of public contracts continued to dog the city of Montreal and the province — UPAC has had the unenviable task of transforming Quebec’s culture of corruption. Two years ago, the squad arrested former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt on charges of corruption and gangsterism, they arrested former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum while he was in office and have rounded up magnates, city planners and assorted civil servants. Vaillancourt and Applebaum are awaiting trial and have pleaded not guilty to the charges they face.
UPAC’s investigations have led to 155 arrests — including 23 in 2015 — most of which relate to breach of trust, corruption and actions that have allegedly defrauded the government of millions. Though most of these charges have yet to be proven in court, UPAC’s findings suggest a culture where contractors trading cash for lucrative public works contracts became an almost banal occurrence.
After the high-profile arrests of Vaillancourt and Applebaum, Lafrenière said he was struck by seeing brazen acts of corruption. It was around that time that a contractor tried bribing the mayor of Châteauguay in return for a zoning change — she immediately reported him.
“It was in the middle of all that press coverage, ‘UPAC hits here, UPAC hits there,’ ” said Lafrenière. “The year 2013, we arrested 66 people and you see the (attempted bribe) and you think, ‘Damn, they don’t understand, they’re not afraid.’ That’s where I realized how entrenched this behaviour is in some people.
“(With) Applebaum, when he went on television and said, ‘I’m not under investigation,’ and you know that it’s about to come down, you say, ‘My God, that’s incredible.’”
Corruption had such deep roots in Quebec because, for years, it was easy, because it went unpunished and unreported, said Lafrenière. He was head of investigations at the SQ for three years and only came across one corruption probe. The tip for that probe didn’t come from a whistleblower but, rather, from evidence uncovered during an unrelated wiretap investigation.
“Back then, our priority was the (biker wars), the bombs going off and the shootings,” he said.
Sitting in his office near the Jacques Cartier Bridge, Lafrenière says he believes his unit has changed things for the better. He notes that, in some municipalities, the price of some projects has gone down by up to 30 per cent. And the construction of the publicly funded Quebec City arena — a time when UPAC inspectors would regularly visit the site — came in about $35 million under budget.
With contractors beginning work on the $3.7 billion Turcot Interchange project, UPAC has visited the site 67 times. They check to make sure work is being done right, to ensure that labourers are properly certified and that the companies doing the building have been greenlit by the Autorité des marchés financiers.
“With Turcot, if we don’t lose control, think of how much money we can save taxpayers,” Lafrenière said. “Yes, there’s been a change in culture, yes the level of ethics has been raised on the part of civil servants, construction firms and elected officials. But there’s still a lot of work to do.”