Quebec corruption probe steep learning curve for judge
Lack of clear mandate likely cause of silence around justice’s moves
Nearly three weeks after she was appointed to head a high-profile probe into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, Justice France Charbonneau has yet to utter a word in public, but experts say she’s likely being kept busy behind the scenes.
Charbonneau was thrust into the spotlight Oct. 19 when Quebec Premier Jean Charest yielded to pressure to call a public inquiry into what has been described as a deep-seated culture of corruption in the construction sector.
Best known as the tough-talking prosecutor who brought down Hells Angels leader Maurice (Mom) Boucher, Charbonneau was widely praised as the ideal choice to lead the commission.
Seventeen days later, and despite intense public interest in her work, it’s unclear what the 60-year-old judge has been up to.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson in the premier’s office directed the
Montreal Gazette to the provincial Justice Department to find out what, if any, resources it might be providing as Charbonneau attempts to put together her team.
Joanne Marceau, a spokesperson for that department, said any inquiries into the commissioner’s work would have to be put directly to Charbonneau’s office.
Charbonneau’s personal secretary, Josee Boisvert, said Thursday the judge has yet to appoint a media spokesperson, and is not granting interviews.
Bruce Hicks, a professor at the Universite de Montreal and specializing in Canadian political institutions, said one explanation for Charbonneau’s silence could be that she is still trying to decide how she will structure the commission. “The catch with the Charbonneau commission is that it is not clear exactly what kind of work it will be doing”
The government did not name the commission under Quebec’s public inquiries act, and originally its mandate seemed to be more researchbased, with Charbonneau and two co-commissioners looking into the broader system of corruption in the province and leaving the criminal investigation to the police permanent anti-corruption squad.
But then the premier said the government would grant the judge the power to probe into the criminal element by subpoenaing witnesses and granting immunity “if she asks for it.”
“If you start going in that direction, then the model you draw on is something like the Mulroney-schreiber Commission,” Hicks said. “It’s not clear that Charbonneau wants that.”
Right now, Hicks said, Charbonneau likely is focusing on naming her two co-commissioners, but the lack of a clear mandate could be making this difficult.
“This is sort of a cart-horse thing in that until you really know which direction you want to go, you can’t design your team to go there,” he said. “If you’re going into criminal matters, you need judges with criminal backgrounds as your two fellow commissioners. If you’re going into public policy, you need people who have expertise and knowledge about how government operates who can ask the right questions.”
Beyond these major decisions, a slew of smaller, logistical matters must be settled, including securing office space, hiring support staff, setting up phone lines and ordering stationery and other supplies.
(The latter does not require ordering materials through the usual government channels, since the commission is supposed to be totally independent.)
Gregory Marchildon served as executive director of the Romanow Commission, which in 2001, examined the long-term challenges of maintaining a public, universal health-care system in Canada. He agreed that the lack of a clear mandate could make organizing the commission more challenging for Charbonneau.
“People who have worked in one field their entire lives and have never dealt with this sort of thing are not going to know how to go about ne- gotiating these things,” Marchildon said. “I could see how somebody could very easily be taken advantage of by a government that wants something done in a particular way.”
Marchildon cautioned that the Romanow Commission had a different structure and mandate, and the setup procedures will not necessarily be the same for Charbonneau.
“I was responsible for setting up the commission, employing people, and ensuring that everything (was) going to be done on time and on budget,” Marchildon said. In the first few weeks, “that meant figuring out where the commission would be located ... and, obviously, even before that, learning everything there is to know about how commissions operate. There were both good and bad lessons from previous commissions.”
Hicks said the public should expect to receive more information from Charbonneau in the coming weeks. “There’s no reason it couldn’t be up and running in terms of offices and the appointing of commissioners within a month,” he said. “There should be a sense of urgency.”