MONTREAL — The woman who put away Hells Angels boss Maurice (Mom) Boucher is now being called upon to tackle a far bigger foe: corruption in Quebec’s multibillion-dollar construction industry and its ties to politics and organized crime.
Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau has been given a two-year mandate to wade through the web of corruption that has reportedly ensnared many of the province’s institutions.
She was the prosecutor who won a murder trial in 2002 against the once-powerful Boucher.
Her appointment Wednesday earned praise from none other than John Gomery, a former colleague who presided over the famous federal sponsorship inquiry: “She’s an excellent judge,” Gomery said.
“That’s a very good choice. I have only praise for her.”
Charbonneau’s new mandate requires her to produce a final report by October 2013 — almost certainly after the next provincial election — although she can table interim reports before then.
The limit to Charbonneau’s power has become a source of instant controversy. There was angry opposition reaction Wednesday and one Montreal newspaper columnist dismissively declared his references to a “public inquiry” would come with quotation marks.
Charbonneau will certainly face handicaps Gomery did not.
Her mandate does not actually stem from the provincial law on public inquiries, which grants sweeping powers to subpoena witnesses and offer legal immunity in exchange for testimony.
Charbonneau, a judge since 2004, will not be able to compel witnesses to testify. Nor will she be able to entice them to appear by offering legal immunity for any incriminating testimony.
Key parts of the inquiry will be held behind closed doors.
That means that if a parade of witnesses testifies about underworld influence, there will not likely be any TV images to tantalize viewers watching the evening news.
Those conditions dominated the news conference where Premier Jean Charest announced the inquiry then faced a testy exchange with reporters.
“We did not improvise,” Charest replied.
“Serious thought was put into this.”
Charest said the procedures were specifically designed to protect ongoing police investigations and ensure any evidence gathered won’t be thrown out of court. Since the testimony would not be obtained under coercion it could later be used in criminal proceedings, the government said.
When asked whether he would appear if called to testify, the premier said, “Yes.”
The inquiry announcement came after two years of persistent reports of corruption involving the construction industry, political parties and crime groups like the Mafia.
These actors are all participants in a multi-faceted scheme that allegedly stuffs the coffers of gangs, political parties and construction companies — but fleeces Quebec taxpayers.
Analysts have cited such malfeasance as one reason the province spends as much as one-third extra per construction project than other jurisdictions.
Charest met with his cabinet on Wednesday before making the announcement. He also spent several hours behind closed doors with his caucus Tuesday, outlining the details of his plan.
Demands for an inquiry ramped up in 2009. But until recently, Charest had brushed aside the requests.
He said the problems were being addressed by 15 policy changes he had made, including the creation of a new anti-corruption unit and the introduction of reforms to political financing and municipal contracting.
The premier’s opponents were criticizing Charest even before the official inquiry announcement.
Charest had been hinting strongly that the juiciest part of any probe — the portion with testimony on criminal schemes — would be held behind closed doors.
This stemmed from a proposal by the provincial anti-collusion crusader Jacques Duchesneau. He’s the author of the explosive report that was recently leaked to the media, which intensified the pressure on Charest.
But the Opposition says what Quebecers want is a public, transparent, wide-ranging inquiry.
Now the Parti Quebecois is promising to hold its own inquiry within 100 days of taking office. The next provincial vote could be held as early as next spring, although Charest can legally wait until December 2013 to call the election.
The PQ is encouraging Liberals to stage a mutiny against their leader. The governing party has a convention next weekend and some suspect Wednesday’s announcement was timed to quell dissension in the ranks.
“Rise up!” Marois told a news conference, addressing the Liberal rank-and-file.
“Stand up against this code of silence… There will be a (real) public inquiry — sooner or later,” she promised.