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Que. construction inquiry good: experts

Frank Zampino, May 17, 2012. (QMI Agency/PIERRE-PAUL POULIN)

Frank Zampino, May 17, 2012. (QMI Agency/PIERRE-PAUL POULIN)


Reports that a reputed gangster as well as a famous undercover FBI agent could be upcoming witnesses at Quebec's construction inquiry have boosted the profile of the commission.

Hearings resume Monday morning after a summer hiatus and while the commission is certainly receiving a lot of media attention, it has yet to produce anything tangible for Canadians.

Witnesses haven't named big names and neither have they offered proof to justify serious allegations of corruption in the province's public institutions.

However, even if the Charbonneau Commission doesn't blame any specific person or organization, the exercise of holding inquiries is important for society, argue two law experts.

So far, though, it has been outgoing Premier Jean Charest who can point to the most successes in fighting corruption in Quebec.

Charest resisted pressure for months to hold a public inquiry into the construction industry. Instead, he created a permanent, anti-corruption unit in the provincial police and consistently maintained that Quebecers "need to let police do their work."

Charest relented and called an inquiry in November, but it has been the anti-corruption squad that has shown the most tangible results thus far.

In April, the anti-corruption unit arrested 14 people, including one of the biggest names in Quebec construction, Tony Accurso, as well as the mayor of a town north of Montreal.Those arrested were charged with fraud.

The following month, the unit arrested Frank Zampino, the former right-hand man of the mayor of Montreal. Police say Zampino masterminded a scheme to deflate the value of 38 hectares of land and sell it to a construction contractor.

The trials of those arrested have yet to begin, but the outgoing government can point to specific examples of how it has fought corruption in the province.

The construction inquiry has offered no such examples - yet.

It is unclear what will be said by Joseph Pistone - a.k.a. Donnie Brasco - who will reportedly testify in the upcoming days about organized crime.

He was an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the infamous New York City Bonanno crime family in the late 70s and early 80s. Pistone was immortalized in the 1997 film, Donnie Brasco, featuring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.

QMI Agency also learned that Raynald Desjardins, a reputed Montreal mobster and one of the only non-Italians to crack the inner circle of the city's Italian mafia, could also testify.

Desjardins is awaiting trial, accused of murdering a rival. Desjardins' lawyer confirmed to QMI Agency that members of the commission approached his client but wouldn't confirm if Desjardins will testify.

However, even if Desjardins and Pistone offer nothing more to the commission than media attention, that's OK, said two prominent Canadian law experts.

Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and past president of the Law Commission of Canada, said public inquiries are important because they get people talking.

The point of a public inquiry is not necessarily to point blame at any specific people, but to "clarify what are the systemic practices that are encouraging illegality," she said.

"A commission creates in the public some sort of awareness or sensibility to the problem," she told QMI Agency.

Prof. Richard Simeon, political science and law professor at the University of Toronto, said public inquiries complement police investigations.

Public inquiries have mandates that are most often wider in scope than police investigations, as is the case with the Charbonneau commission, he explained.

"The reasons we hold public inquiries into issues is because we think there are broader questions or public policy and public interest here," Simeon said.

The commission has until Oct. 19, 2013, to produce its final report.

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