Sunday , January 24 2021

Quebec is not immune to new scandals

The Charbonneau commission did not put an end to ethical problems in municipalities. Tabled five years ago this week, its report recommended, among other things, that elected municipal officials take an ethics course. Did they all take it seriously? No one can really answer us. One thing is certain, our inquiry bureau has identified 38 of them, all over Quebec, who would get an E on their exam.

Quebec is not immune to a second Charbonneau commission and this is certainly not the time to let our guard down, warn key players in the municipal sector.

– Also to be read: 38 elected in hot water

– Also to be read: 24 elected municipal officials who didn’t understand anything…

While several offending elected officials have been caught in recent years, the fact remains that the monitoring tools put in place since the Commission on the Awarding and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry (CEIC), also known as the Charbonneau Commission, are far from working to their full potential (see below).

“The Commission has shown us that you can have the most beautiful laws you can imagine, but that if you don’t have anyone to enforce them, it doesn’t do much good,” says former CEIC prosecutor and former Inspector General of Montreal, Denis Gallant.

He also advocates that all major cities in Quebec should have an inspector general with broad investigative powers over contractors, subcontractors, public servants and elected officials.

Corrupters’ behaviour has become more sophisticated in recent years, as reported by the Commissioner of the Permanent Anti-Corruption Unit (UPAC), Frédérick Gaudreau, in his annual review earlier this month. “It is more hidden than it used to be,” he said.

The Minister of Municipal Affairs, Andrée Laforest, acknowledges that Quebec City cannot rest on its laurels in the fight against corruption and that there is still a lot of work to be done.



The Minister of Municipal Affairs, Andrée Laforest, hopes to pass Bill 49, which would, for example, give more power to the Commission municipale du Québec by the 2021 municipal elections.



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The Minister of Municipal Affairs, Andrée Laforest, hopes to pass Bill 49, which would, for example, give more power to the Commission municipale du Québec by the 2021 municipal elections.

Of the 60 recommendations in the Charbonneau commission’s report, 32 were aimed at the municipal level, and of these, 25 have actually been implemented since 2015.

Minister Laforest promises to “finish the work that was started” with CEIC through Bill 49, which she hopes to pass by the next municipal elections in November 2021.

This bill aims to correct certain shortcomings, for example, by giving more powers to the Commission municipale du Québec (CMQ), which can currently punish elected officials only if they violate their city’s code of ethics. The bill would also seek to impose financial penalties in the future.

“When I first came on the job, I certainly found it peculiar. I also didn’t hesitate to check some files that had been problematic for years and years. We didn’t dare act with certain municipalities,” said Minister Laforest, who placed the City of Chambly under supervision in February 2019.

“My hope is that after the adoption of Bill 49, with the expansion of the powers of the CMQ and the Commissioner of Municipal Integrity and Investigations (CIME), we will no longer need to send investigations to the PUPAC and that we will save time. [d’enquête] which is a long time with PUPAC,” says the Minister.

But these commendable efforts still leave gaps in the monitoring of the municipal world, notes Danielle Pilette, a specialist in municipal management who teaches at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

“This project responds to the worst we’ve seen in recent years, but it doesn’t solve all the problems. […] The worst areas of risk for corruption and collusion, such as proximity between elected officials and real estate developers, zoning changes, permitting, etc., are not being addressed. ».

The worst behind us?



The President of the Union des municipalités du Québec, Suzanne Roy.


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The President of the Union des municipalités du Québec, Suzanne Roy.

Municipal elected officials believe that the worst is behind us when it comes to integrity and ethics.

“I’ve been in municipal politics for 20 years. I remember in my early years, when we went to conventions, engineering and law firms were very present. They even offered invitations to suites where you could go and get an drink before the party. […] Since the Charbonneau Commission, and even before, it has completely disappeared,” believes Jacques Demers, president of the Fédération québécoise des municipalités and mayor of Sainte-Catherine-de-Hatley.

“We must not generalize about it. Those who place themselves in a conflict of interest get picked up right away. […] Maybe we need to work on that one more time. [d’éthique] for the minority of minorities who have not yet understood,” says Suzanne Roy, President of the Union des municipalités du Québec and Mayor of Sainte-Julie.

SIX WATCHDOGS OF VARYING EFFECTIVENESS

THE PERMANENT ANTI-CORRUPTION UNIT



Commissioner Frédérick Gaudreau intends to restore UPAC's image.



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Commissioner Frédérick Gaudreau intends to restore UPAC’s image.

In November 2018, our Office of Investigation reported that at least 11 municipalities were waiting for news from the Permanent Anti-Corruption Unit (PACU). Some elected officials and citizens are becoming impatient.

PUPAC’s last major coup in the municipal arena was the arrest of former Terrebonne mayor Jean-Marc Robitaille in 2018.

Searches have since taken place in various municipalities, such as Chambly or Blainville, but none of them have led to a clear conclusion.

PAPU serves as a focal point for criminal investigations in the municipal world, but refused to confirm whether such investigations were still active to date.

UPAC Commissioner Frédérick Gaudreau acknowledged on November 11 that his organization is currently going through a “crisis of confidence”.

It received three times fewer reports from the public in 2019-2020 compared to 2016-2017.

THE MUNICIPAL COMMISSION OF QUEBEC

The Commission municipale du Québec (CMQ) currently appears to be the most effective monitoring tool for elected municipal officials.

Since 2010, it has rendered nearly 200 decisions. With enhanced powers since 2018, such as making it mandatory to cooperate with its investigations, the CMQ will punish offenders more severely.

Previously, only 33% of decisions led to a sanction and elected officials were suspended in 13% of cases. Now, 86% of the decisions rendered sanction elected officials and 72% lead to suspensions.

Nevertheless, Minister Andrée Laforest has indicated that she feels it is necessary to give even more power to the CMQ, which is what Bill 49 should do if passed.

THE MUNICIPAL INTEGRITY AND INVESTIGATION COMMISSIONER

Established following the Charbonneau Commission to protect and assist whistleblowers in the municipal environment, the Commissioner of Municipal Integrity and Investigations (CIME) has made very few waves since its creation in October 2018.

The CIME’s mandate is to deal with all disclosures of wrongdoing against a municipality or other municipal body.

To date, however, it has produced only four investigation reports, including one for the period 2020-2021. Some 20 opinions have also been issued, following the analysis of more than 500 disclosures. At present, seven investigations are reported to be ongoing.

In an interview, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, Andrée Laforest, acknowledged that it was necessary to give the CIME “more clout”, which Bill 49 provides for. Currently, CIME can inform a municipality of problems it identifies, but it is not obliged to act.

ETHICS TRAINING

As of 2010, all newly elected officials must complete mandatory training in ethics and professional conduct within six months of taking office.

The problem is that it is difficult to know if this training is actually being followed.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs is not informed of the participation or not of elected officials. Also, there is no penalty.

The fact of not having taken this mandatory training constitutes at most an “aggravating factor” for an elected official who would be cited in ethics before the Commission municipale du Québec.

It is only now, 10 years after it was put in place, that a monitoring and surveillance tool would be in preparation in the Department.

Also, training is poorly supervised. It must essentially “encourage reflection on ethics in municipal matters”. Some municipalities may provide it. Associations also offer it.

For example, the Fédération québécoise des municipalités gives a six-hour course that shows examples of conflicts of interest and discusses the issue of gifts to elected officials. At the Union des municipalités du Québec, the course is more like 10 hours.

The Commission municipale du Québec estimates that 3054 elected officials would have taken the training following the last municipal elections in 2017.

MUNICIPAL INSPECTORS



Jacques Duchesneau, head of the Saint-Jérôme BIPA, says his organization has helped recover $2 million.



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Jacques Duchesneau, head of the Saint-Jérôme BIPA, says his organization has helped recover $2 million.

Several cities have “public contract police”, but most of these organizations are either opaque or have limited power.

The Integrity and Ethics Office of Laval and Terrebonne (BIELT), which investigates reports and contracts, processed 81 reports in 2019, one of which was transferred to PUPAC. However, little is known about its operations and the outcome of its investigations.

Saint-Jérôme’s Office of Professional and Administrative Integrity (BIPA), led by former police officer and politician Jacques Duchesneau, says it has helped the city recover nearly $2 million in 2017 and 2018 through voluntary repayments and contract monitoring.

But despite requests from elected officials in Saint-Jérôme, the BIPA still cannot investigate elected officials and civil servants. In 2019, the BIPA transferred 12 files to UPAC.

The last on the list, the Bureau d’inspection contractuelle (BIC) in Longueuil, received 51 reports in 2019, four of which were the subject of recommendations and six of which were transferred to other jurisdictions.

In fact, only the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in Montreal can intervene at all levels. In 2020 alone, it produced three reports and terminated 12 contracts.

THE PUBLIC PROCUREMENT AUTHORITY



Minister Sonia LeBel wants to review the MPA Act.



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Minister Sonia LeBel wants to review the MPA Act.

Active since 2018, the Public Procurement Authority (AMP) is a direct result of a recommendation of the Charbonneau Commission. Its mandate is to monitor markets and ensure that the rules are respected when awarding public contracts.

However, its scope of action is limited. For example, the GPA has only a recommendation power for municipal contracts. Also, while it can exclude malicious businesses by registering them in the Register of Businesses Ineligible for Public Contracts (RENA), our Office of Investigation has shown that some business owners manage to thwart the GPA, for example by hiding behind a trust.

For almost a year, the GPA has been campaigning for new powers to be incorporated into its mandate. The President of the Treasury Board, Me Sonia LeBel, also mentioned that she wanted to review the Public Procurement Authority Act.

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